LONDON (Reuters) - As musicians from Mali took to a London stage on Saturday night, news was announced that back home French troops had captured the airport of the Islamist-controlled city of Gao.
A cheer went up - and not surprisingly.
Since Islamist militants seized control of Mali’s north following a military coup in March 2012, the country has been convulsed by conflict.
Its musical community, whose singers and players have won worldwide acclaim, has been targeted by the hardline Islamists bent on imposing sharia, or Islamic law. Concerts have been banned in northern cities, clubs closed, instruments smashed and burned, musicians harassed and forced to flee.
This weekend’s “Sahara Soul” concert at London’s Barbican, featuring Bassekou Kouyate, Sidi Toure and the desert blues band Tamkirest, showcased the country’s musical riches and called for peace. But it also indicated that there were differing visions of what any peace might entail.
“There is just one message - peace,” Sidi Toure told Reuters backstage before the concert. “If you filled this room with gold and diamonds, it would not be more important than peace.”
Toure hails from Gao on the banks of the River Niger in the Sahel region and performs Songhai folk songs with a trance-like beat. Music, he said, was ingrained in Malian life.
“When you feel bad, only music can cure you. We have many different kinds - for your first child, for weddings, for parties.”
But it has been forbidden in Gao since an official of the Ansar Din (Followers of God) militant group stated in August: “We do not want Satan’s music.”
“At the cultural centre, they made a fire in the street of all the instruments. Now all the musicians have left, for Bamako, for Niger, for Burkina Faso,” Toure said.
Malians welcomed the French military action three weeks ago as Islamist forces advanced on the capital Bamako, he said.
“Without the French intervention, that would have been the end of Mali. The French saved Mali,” he said.
Until the war pushed Mali to the forefront of U.S. and European security concerns with fears the Islamists would turn the country into a base for international attacks, Mali was probably best defined for the outside world by its music.
It is seen as the wellspring of American blues, transported to Mississippi and Memphis by slavery.
Artists such as Amadou and Mariam, the blind couple from Bamako, have sold millions of records and fill concert halls worldwide. The desert blues band Tinariwen, born out of the Touareg rebellion, won a Grammy award last year.
The annual Festival in the Desert, held near the fabled city of Timbuktu, was a pilgrimage for many foreigners, among them ex-Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and U2’s Bono. That will not happen this year.
“Today Mali is different, because of terrorism by those who want to impose sharia; no music, no TV, no telephones, no democracy. This is no good,” Kouyate told the audience.
Kouyate, from Segou, southern Mali, plays a wooden acoustic instrument called the ngoni, a forebear of the banjo. He recalled that on the day of the military coup last March, his band had just started recording their latest album in Bamako. They heard the shooting in the streets.
His final song, “Ne me fatigue pas”, takes aim at the coup that brought down an elected government.
The coup gave new impetus to a long-running Touareg separatist rebellion in the Sahara desert of the north. That, however, was swiftly taken over by the Islamists, many said to be foreign veterans of the Afghan and Libyan battlefields.
Last week a host of Malian musicians, including Amadou and Mariam, recorded a song for peace in Bamako under the banner Voices United for Mali.
“Malian people look to us,” singer Fatoumata Diawara, the project organizer, said in Bamako. “They have lost hope in politics. But music has always brought hope in Mali.”
The lyrics refer directly to the situation in the north, saying: “Such catastrophe, such desolation ... tell the North that our Mali is one nation, indivisible!”
The Touareg band Tamikrest took to the stage in London in desert robes to play their songs of struggle, the hypnotic guitar jams punctuated by ululations.
But leader Ousmane Ag Mossa made clear beforehand that although he was all for peace, Malian solidarity was a different matter.
The government based in the south was just as much his problem as the Islamists, he told Reuters.
“We have never seen Mali as one country. Our movement is for our independence. We are the children of suffering. There have been a lot of massacres against us. It was always like this.”
“Now they want to destroy us under the banner of fighting terrorism. The message of the music is always peace. But the musicians of the south are only finding out now what has been going on,” he said.
As a boy in the 1990s, Ousmane lost family in a period of intense warfare between the army and the Touareg. He took up the guitar as the best way to get his people’s message across, founding the band, now based in Algeria, in the city of Kaled in 2006.
“If we had been treated well and fairly, our situation would have been different. We have been treated as a bunch of nomads only good for herding livestock. We are not seen as Malians,” he said, speaking in Tamashek, the Touareg language.
“People who are interested now are only smelling the smoke of the fire we have been in for a century,” he said.
For the show’s finale, the three bands joined together on stage for a rousing jam fusing electric guitars, ngonis, scratch percussion and vocals.
A fleeting moment of unity, or a sign that Malians might one day achieve harmony?
Reporting by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Will Waterman