Arts & Entertainment

‘Mali equals music’: Nation’s lifeblood silenced by Covid

Bamako, Jul 29 (efe-epa).- Mali’s vibrant music scene has been muted by coronavirus restrictions and many artists are struggling to stay afloat as emergency funding for the arts promised by the government fails to materialize.

From Ali Farka Touré to the Songhoy Blues, Mali’s capital Bamako has served as a launchpad to the international stage for some of the best known names in traditional and contemporary West African music.

It has also grabbed the attention of Western artists such as Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, who has traveled to the nation several times and has described its music as “an inspiration.”

Nathanael Dembélé, formerly the drummer for the internationally-successful group Songhoy Blues and currently a member of Collektif Teriya sums it up succinctly in an interview with epa-efe.

“Mali equals music. We do everything through music. Baptism, music. Weddings, music. When we are happy, we sing. That’s the way we are.”

Music is woven into the fabric of the nation’s identity, whether it be traditional Tuareg tunes from the north, encapsulated by world-renown group Tinariwen, or the blues in Bamako.

“Malian musicians represent the flag better than any other institution,” Dembélé says. “It’s Malian artists who can speak about Mali in Japan, in Brussels, in Hong Kong, in Bangkok, in Madrid, Paris, London. Everywhere, we are listened to.”

But the artform is at risk.

In a bid to contain the spread of coronavirus back in March, the Malian government rolled out restrictions, including a ban on large gatherings of people, meaning concerts, festivals, weddings and street performances, the kind of events that provide musicians their daily bread, were scrapped.

According to the latest data, Mali has had a total Covid-19 caseload of 2,520, less than 500 of which are still active.

Almost all measures have since been lifted, but gatherings of people remain prohibited.

“Malian artists live day to day. If you play tonight, you get paid and you can feed yourself,” Dembélé says.

“Suddenly, that whole system was suspended due to the government’s measures. That’s fine, but since the government is not providing any support to artists, culture is one of the only sectors in Mali that has not yet benefited from government financial support.

“We have not received any help.”

He says artists are unable to learn or develop in the current climate, given the “vast majority of musicians in Mali learn their craft in the streets.”

He recalls his own musical awakening when, as a youngster, he would head to gatherings to film musicians in action on his mobile phone. Once home, he would listen to the music and try to recreate it.

Without access to a drum, or even drumsticks, Dembélé improvised by using his father’s office table, which still bears the marks of his drumming to this day.

He is not alone in his concern for the plight of Mali’s music.

“It’s been four months where we haven’t had any work,” Bady Agaly, rhythm guitarist for Bamako-based Tamashek group Aratan N’akal, says. “We don’t even practice anymore. Each person stays in his corner.”

“Now it’s almost Tabaski (Eid al-Adha),” he adds. “And we can’t do anything, we can’t work…no concert, no festivals, no weddings.

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