Timbuktu, whose name is most known to many English speakers as the home of Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men, is actually the name for the capital of the central African country of Mali. News from Mali rarely makes it into our newspapers or on to the television but today The Guardian carried an article from Ruth Maclean, who reported on the fact that Malian musician Khaira Arby has just put on one of the first concerts in Timbuktu since the city was taken over by a totalitarian army of soldiers in 2012. According to Maclean the the organisers had not publicised the event for fear that the soldiers, who had been chased out of the city by the French in 2013, but who were still at large in the rest of the country, would attack it.
The news article reminded me of a concert by Malian Oumou Sangaré at Village Underground in London, in 2017. Sangaré sang in French and Bambara, the sound her band created was something akin to the beginning of the Stone Roses second album The Second Coming. A cacophony, a bit like an orchestra warming up, but it worked, and it promised ever so much. What was striking was that for the first two-thirds of the night, Sangaré invariably sang with a look on her face that moved between severe and pained. No matter that very few people could understand the language she was singing in, she was clearly not there to just throw a party, there was stuff she needed to get off her chest. She’d point at the audience, as if casting them in the roll of the villain she was singing of, slice her hand down, hold the palm of her hand out to stop us and then wag her finger, and in one song she kept drawing her finger across her neck. The throat slitting gesture together with a comment that in Mali ‘things were not good’ suggested that Mali was not a great place to have an opinion or be a creative type. Maclean’s article, has of course, cleared things up a little bit.
The soldiers who took over Timbuktu in 2012 were determined to establish absolute domination over the city’s denizens. They sought to destroy anything that would distract people from devotion and subordination to their authority. Musical instruments and records were destroyed and musicians were threatened and intimated. However, musicians, whilst cowed, did not go into complete abeyance. Maclean talked to some musicians who explained that they responded to the oppression by creating music about that oppression in secret at home. Now it seems some of those musicians are venturing back out into public life. Whilst famous musicians usually have the networks and financial means to flee an invading army, it is still a brave thing to test the waters in this way. Putting yourself at the vanguard of a movement which tolerates freedom, creativity and difference means you also make yourself the target for those who believe in control, domination and totalitarianism.
As a post-script I thought I’d have a quick look to see if I could find out anything about the Timbuktu Renaissance Group. I found their website easily although they understandably limit the amount of information available. I was excited to see that one of the partners of the movement was Sangaré, I did get the impression when I went to see her in concert that she was considered as some kind of mother of all the Malians. Sangaré will be playing the London Roundhouse on the 31st January. How long, I wonder, before she is playing in Timbuktu?