Saturday, June 8, 2013

Damon Albarn in Mali, and an update to an ongoing international crisis

On May 19, the New York Times published a piece regarding the ban on music which followed a relatively recent occupation of northern Mali by militant Islamist group Ansar Dine, citing a Guardian article from October 2012. Previously, the Guardian had stated:

An official decree banning all western music was issued on 22 August by a heavily bearded Islamist spokesman in the city of Gao. "We don't want the music of Satan. Qur'anic verses must take its place. Sharia demands it," the decree says.

The ban comes in the context of a horrifically literal and gratuitous application of Sharia law in all aspects of daily life. Militiamen are cutting off the hands and feet of thieves or stoning adulterers. Smokers, alcohol drinkers and women who are not properly attired are being publicly whipped.

The Northern Mali conflict began in early 2012 with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) looking to make Azawad, part of northern Mali, independent of the Malian government. The MNLA, run by Tuaregs, took control of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu after Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré was overthrown in a coup d'etat, and proclaimed Azawad's independence -- however, Ansar Dine sought to enforce Sharia law, and Ansar Dine and MNLA fell into their own conflict, resulting in Ansar Dine's takeover. As of January of this year, the French Army was called in to help the Malian government regain control, and launched Opération Serval to intervene on the Islamist takeover of Konna from the Malian army. Chad came in, the U.S. sent troops to Niger, bordering Mali, in order to assist the French, and set up a new air base to conduct surveillance against Al Qaeda. Bringing us up to speed, in July 2013, the UN will launch a 12,600-person Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to restore democratic governance and the presence of an election process.

This is a very complicated conflict and the role of MNLA has shifted several times. What is certain, however, is the food insecurity brought on by the conflict; on April 29, the Guardian reported that the UN claimed "282,548 people [are] registered displaced in Mali, and almost 50,000 refugees are in Burkina Faso and Niger, and 74,000 in Mauritania." This, in addition to Algeria closing its border to Mali and cutting off another food route. The Guardian also wrote that "one in five households faces food shortages categorised as 'severe' in northern Mali, and 'extreme' in the Tessalit and Abeibara districts in the Kidal region," partly a result of "herders [being] unable to use traditional pastures and water points," and the departure of NGOs, which typically "created employment for local people, which brought income, and invested in food security" via purchase of seeds, fertilisers, water pumps and fuel for irrigation.

It now seems an appropriate time to look back at Mali Music, a 2002 album led by Damon Albarn, then asked to play Oxfam ambassador, in collaboration with a number of Malian musicians, including kora player Toumani Diabaté and Afel Bocoum, nephew of Ali Farka Touré. Released eleven years ago, at the height of Gorillaz' popularity and just prior to Blur's return with Think Tank, Mali Music was a British effort that never really got much mention in the U.S. It was made using a back-and-forth process that involved Albarn traveling to Mali with a melodica and playing casually with Malian musicians, returning to London to edit the music, and sending his work back to Mali for vocal additions. The result is a combination of efforts that could have easily worked on a Gorillaz album ("Le Relax" in particular) and those that appear virtually untouched by his hand, such as the beautiful "4am at Toumani's" and the brief "Kokanka Sata Doumbia on River." And while it'd have been great to see a record with more of the latter -- which means that, yes, the record was successful in piquing my interest in Malian music -- the fussed-with tracks are nothing to scoff at and contribute to a cohesive tribute, rather than serving to point out the differences between Western and West African cultures.

During last year's conflict, Albarn returned to Bamako, Mali, to again collaborate with Bocoum. The music to result would aim to help raise awareness of the country, as well as funds for Oxfam relief of food insecurity brought on by a combination of drought and the mass exodus to an already-struggling Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso.

Mali Music - 4 A.M. at Toumani's
Mali Music - Ko Kan Ka Sata Doumbia on River
Purchase 2002's Mali Music

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