x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Extremists on the run, Mali free again to sing its song of tolerance

Militants linked to Al Qaeda banned music when they took over northern Mali, but their harsh brand of Islam was an affront to a people proud of their rich culture. Alice Fordham reports from Bamako

The Malian musician Baba Salah performs at Le Savana Club in Bamako last month. George Henton for The National
The Malian musician Baba Salah performs at Le Savana Club in Bamako last month. George Henton for The National

BAMAKO // It is Saturday night at Le Savana club in Mali's riverside capital, and the atmosphere is warming up as the night air gradually cools.

Young Malian couples, sporting fashionable clothes and jewellery, sit together on zebra-print chairs in a courtyard under the stars. As they order plates of grilled fish and fried plantains, the band is just getting going: a young guitarist with dreamy eyes is picking out the first melodies of the night, slow and sweet.

It is this fast-growing city, with restaurants spreading under mango trees, women in bright print dresses and a long musical tradition, which many feared would fall into the hands of the religious extremists who took over the north of the country in April last year. At stake, say people here, was a culture that prided itself on tolerance, freedom and rich artistic traditions.

The guitarist at Le Savana, who later in the night sang songs about emancipation, peace and democracy, is Baba Salah, a well-known musician from the northern city of Gao. This was the largest of the towns seized by Al Qaeda-led groups in their lightning takeover of the north, and music was banned in the place he learnt to play, under their harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

The new rules, said Mr Salah, did not reflect the country as he knows it.

"Mali is culturally very rich," he said. "You can hear a lot of music, and it is diverse. The people are kind and warm and we are a country of peace and tolerance...people accept people as they are."

Malian music is "so strong, so magic and so special," he said. Its gentle rhythms and distinctive melodies have won the sound a worldwide following. Robert Plant, the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, is an avid fan. He played at the Festival of the Desert which used to be an annual event in Timbuktu, before the extremist takeover. And British singer Damon Albarn, of Blur fame, recorded an album called Mali Music.

Mr Salah said the ban on music imposed by the north's new rulers upset him in part because he is Muslim and considers music to be entirely acceptable within the faith. "This is their way of teaching," he said, referring to the fighters. "But Islam is tolerant and non-violent."

His view is echoed by many others in predominantly Muslim country of 15.5 million people who were outraged by the fighters who told them how to live - not because they do not care about religion, but because many do. Most villages boast a mud-built mosque with a crescent moon perched atop a tiny minaret and one of the most popular tourist draws in Mali was huge mud-built mosque in the town of Djenné.

But for every devout person who chooses to pray on the streets of the capital five times a day, or to wear a headscarf or niqab, there are others who participate in the lively nightlife, or wear bright frocks or western fashions.

According to Thierno Hady, an imam and member of the influential High Islamic Council in Bamako, it is how Islam has been in Mali for centuries. "The people controlling the north talk about Islam," he said. "But what kind of Islam?"

He described the mix of groups who overran Mali's three northernmost cities as adherents to a violent extremist mindset whose claim to be waging a holy war was theologically dubious.

"Their Islam is against Muslims," he said, and produced a guide to Islamic law written last year by like-minded religious leaders in Mali condemning the violent implementation of Sharia.

"There is no obligation in religion," he said. "In Mali, it's 95 per cent Muslim, but we never said it was a Muslim country. We said it was a secular republic - democratic." He teaches in the mosque that alcohol and prostitution are forbidden, but does not see himself as an enforcer.

"I am not a court, or a trial," he said. "It is the state."

During the past month, a French-led intervention has driven the militant groups out of the northern cities, much to the relief of those in Bamako who had watched them spread south. The hatred for the groups rests as much on the fact that they are led by foreign fighters as on their violent tendencies.

"I consider them not Malian," said Tatou, the French owner of Le Savana, who asked not to give her last name. "The strength of Mali rests on secularism - Malians say 'bissimillah' to mean welcome, but what the Islamists say is different from this."

Now, in Mr Salah's home city of Gao, the streets are patrolled by French and Malian soldiers and music is once more allowed. All is not quite peaceful yet, and most of the thousands who fled will not return soon. The main roads are still blocked by soldiers anxious that the militants have not gone far, and several Malian soldiers were reported killed this month when a landmine blew up their vehicle.

The aftermath of the occupation of Gao - and the other northern cities - may see bouts of violence, with rights groups warning that there could be revenge attacks. Arab-owned shops and civilians from the Tuareg minority, some of whom sided with the rebels, have already been targeted.

Still, Mr Salah hopes to play to his friends and family in his hometown soon. "Of course I look forward to singing in Gao," he said. "I have a lot of hope and we heard Gao is free, even if not totally. So of course I hope to play at home."