Mali, as anyone knows who has even a passing acquaintance with the subject, is one of the powerhouses of African music. When music from the continent became popular in the West in the early Eighties - later subsumed under the dubious label "World Music" - it was Malian artists like Salif Keita and Ali Farka Toure who led the way.
Not any more though:
Khaira Arby, one of Africa’s most celebrated musicians, has performed all over the world, but there is one place she cannot visit: her native city of Timbuktu, a place steeped in history and culture but now ruled by religious extremists.
One day, they broke into Arby’s house and destroyed her instruments. Her voice was a threat to Islam, they said, even though one of her most popular songs praised Allah.
“They told my neighbors that if they ever caught me, they would cut my tongue out,” said Arby, sadness etched on her broad face.
Northern Mali, one of the richest reservoirs of music on the continent, is now an artistic wasteland. Hundreds of musicians have fled south to Bamako, the capital, and to other towns and neighboring countries, driven out by hard-liners who have decreed any form of music — save for the tunes set to Koranic verses — as being against their religion.
The exiles describe a shattering of their culture, in which playing music brings lashes with whips, even prison time, and MP3 and cassette players are seized and destroyed....
In a telephone interview, one of the Islamists’ top commanders declared that his fighters would continue to target musicians.
“Music is against Islam,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three extremist groups controlling the north. “Instead of singing, why don’t they read the Koran? Why don’t they subject themselves to God and pray? We are not only against the musicians in Mali. We are in a struggle against all the musicians of the world.”