For reggae musician Alwakilo Toure, his home in Gao was not a sanctuary. He was strumming his guitar when six armed militants barged into his compound. With guns pointed at his head, one Islamist grabbed the guitar and smashed it to bits with his foot. “The guitar was my life,” Toure recalled. “I had nothing else to do.”
Two weeks later, he fled to Bamako.
In a telephone interview, one of the Islamists’ top commanders declared that his fighters would continue to target musicians.
“Music is against Islam,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three extremist groups controlling the north. “Instead of singing, why don’t they read the Koran? Why don’t they subject themselves to God and pray? We are not only against the musicians in Mali. We are in a struggle against all the musicians of the world.”
Artists without a home
In a cramped apartment in Bamako, about a dozen young artists were recording a song, a fusion of rap and traditional melodies. In one corner, there was a microphone and a computer to mix the tracks. Next to that was a synthesizer.
All the artists were from northern Mali, and none were playing with their own instruments because they had either been burned or shattered by the Islamists. The group included Toure, who was coaching a singer.
But their escape to Bamako is bittersweet.
It has been difficult for the musicians to earn money in the capital. They sing in the languages of the north, but most people in Bamako speak only the southern Bambara language.
“In Bamako, people don’t understand what we sing,” Toure said. “It really hurts us that we can’t perform. Most of us don’t have jobs. Many of us now rely on our relatives for money.”
But even in exile, they have found a way to take a stand against the Islamists.
“We feel like soldiers,” said Kiss Diouara, a 24-year-old rapper. “This is our way to fight our war.”
A few minutes later, he played his group’s most recent creation. The video included a collage of news clips and photos of Islamists destroying ancient mosques and asserting their power. In the video, Diourra raps:
Free the North
We want peace in our land
We want to go back to our homes
Arby understands. For the past eight months, she has lived out of a suitcase.
Arby knows she could easily travel outside Mali for work. Her 2010 album, “Timbuktu Tarab,” was widely acclaimed in the West. She had opportunities to settle in the United States, she said.
But Mali is where she is most inspired, specifically in Timbuktu, she said.
“When I think of Timbuktu, I am lost,” said Arby, wiping a sudden tear that trickled down her cheek. “When I dream of Timbuktu, I wake up. When I think of Timbuktu when I am speaking, I stop speaking. My heart is broken. Timbuktu is everything to me.”