For outsiders, among the most remarkable aspects of life in Mali is the music, the first of many things I fell in love with while living there in the late 1990s. Western journalists writing about the country’s worsening conflict this month have sometimes gone out of their way to mention the country’s world-renowned musicians. And it’s true that these artists, especially the jeliw — members of the caste generally known in Western languages as “griots” — occupy a special place in Malian society.
Barely two weeks before the French military intervention began in Mali, reggae singer Tiken Jah Fakoly released a single urging Malians to mobilize against the rebel threat. A few days later, rapper Master Soumy released a song along similar lines entitled “Sini ye kɛlɛ ye” (tomorrow is a fight). More recently, both these artists joined several well-known Malian musicians under the name Voices United for Mali to record a song “Mali-ko” responding to the country’s conflict. These musicians hail from every part of Mali, and sing (or rap) in a broad range of styles. The “Mali-ko” video below is followed by my translation of and commentary on the lyrics, the message of which is less straightforward than may first appear.
Ensemble: It’s time to speak up about Mali / Artists must speak up about what’s happening to Mali
Khaïra Harby (from Timbuktu): Men and women of Mali, let’s stand together, our country is not warlike
Fatoumata Diawara (from Bougouni): What’s happening in Mali? People are in conflict, betraying each other, the fighting doesn’t end / We’re all of the same blood, the same mother / Let’s stand together to make Africa stronger
Amkoullel (from Mopti): Let’s unite, Malians, and stand strong / Once we do, Maliba [greater Mali], nobody can touch you
Doussou Bakayoko (from Bougouni): Mali doesn’t belong to those people / The great fatherland will never crumble
Kasse Mady Diabaté (from Kita): Let’s show the whole world that Maliba is not a country of war / We all share the same father, the same mother
Sadio Sidibé (from Wassoulou): Mali, Maliba my beautiful country, what’s become of you?
Baba Salah (from Gao): You were the sun lighting the four corners of the world / Our Mali, dry your tears, we love you
Soumaila Kanouté (from Kayes): I’ve never seen such a shocking, catastrophic situation / They want to take what doesn’t belong to them / Go tell them that Mali is indivisible, unchangeable
Master Soumy (from Kayes): Yesterday Mali was like a cigarette butt to be tossed away / We all cried, we all worried / Each day we watch shocking news, it’s unacceptable / We Malians must react or we’ll be the laughingstock of the world
M’baou Tounkara (from Kita): Mali used to be a sweet country / Since the conflict began, Malians have suffered so
Oumou Sangaré (from Wassoulou): Listen well! If we don’t get ready, our grandchildren will be ashamed tomorrow / They will suffer tomorrow
Koko Dembélé (from Mopti): As long as there’s life, there’s hope / Children of Mali, rise up!
Babani Koné (from Segou): [...] What future will the women and children have in this country? I’m worried, afraid / Let’s not kill one another, we share the same blood
Afel Bocoum (from Timbuktu): The only way out of this crisis is the path of understanding
Iba One (from Mopti): Malians let’s unite, that’s how our country will advance / War cannot resolve anything [...]
Tiken Jah (from Côte d’Ivoire): Mali all united, Mali indivisible / Peace is priceless
Fati Kouyaté (from Kayes): War doesn’t distinguish between men, women and children / War only knows regret / We are not accustomed to war
Kisto Dem (from Bamako): Who could have imagined our fatherland Mali turning out this way? Just when Malians were getting it together, others brought us war / In the north, the children are hungry and thirsty, our women have become chattel / Living under the rule of force / Now it’s just about survival
Mamadou Diabaté a.k.a. « 21 DG » (from Kayes): Maliba, as our ancestors called you, don’t stay on your knees, rise up and fight to honor your ancestors
Mariam Doumbia (from Bougouni): If we stand together, enemies can’t hurt us, other countries won’t laugh at us
Ahmed Ag Kaedi (from Kidal): Mali is like a great tree, there’s room for all of us in its shade
Oumou Sangaré: If we don’t get ready we’ll lose our country / If we don’t get it together we will live in shame / I’m talking to our politicians, to our soldiers
Habib Koité (from Kayes): Malians, unity makes us strong! / We can’t let our great land slip away from us / This land of great men
Djeneba Seck (from Bamako): Africa, Europe, Mali / Let’s unite, have mercy on one another, act in unison / That is what is best about Maliba
Vieux Farka Touré (from Timbuktu): Wake up! We’re one family, let’s stand together
Mylmo (from Nioro du Sahel): We’re so respected around the world, why fight amongst ourselves in front of everyone? / Sunjata Keita and our country’s heroes left us their values, we mustn’t abandon them
Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia (from Bougouni): Let’s work together, war is bad, conflict is an ugly thing / If we stand together, life will be better, friendship will be better / Let’s help each other out
Nahawa Doumbia (from Bougouni): We want peace, peace / Peace in Mali / Peace in Africa / In the whole world, peace
(Most of the above lyrics are sung in the Bambara language, but those by Arby, Salah, and Vieux Farka are in Sonrai, while Diabaté speaks in Soninké and Ag Keidi sings in Tamachek. Le Nouvel Observateur has written about the project and posted a French version of these lyrics, from which I translated the non-Bambara verses, but that version contains important omissions.)On the surface, this looks like an anti-war song. The lyrics repeat the notion that Malians constitute one family, sharing the same blood, the same mother and father. Kinship is the strongest idiom governing social relations in Mali, and rhetorical appeals to kinship have great power to end conflict.
Yet this song also carries a message of defiance. Even as some artists decry war (as Kouyaté points out, Malians really aren’t used to it), others exhort their audience to set aside their differences and mobilize in defense of the fatherland (faso). Tiken Jah and Master Soumy are not alone in urging Malians to get ready for war. Ethnomusicologist Ryan Skinner of Ohio State University tells me the verse by griot singer Babani Koné begins with
a dramatic “sow wèlè,” or “calling of the horses.” This staple form of the griot verbal art… connotes the gathering of forces in preparation for conflict, for war. [Koné] calls on the horses (“sow“) and their “great warrior princes” (“sukèlèmansadenw“) to converge. This suggests that the Malians she calls on (literally) may not like war, but they are not unprepared for it.
A bit later, Oumou Sangaré sings “N’an m’an cɛ siri Maliba bɛ bɔ an bɔlɔ dɛ,” which I translate above as “If we don’t get ready, Maliba will slip away from us.” The verb k’i cɛ siri literally means to tie one’s waist — like girding one’s loins to prepare for a fight. When they sing about standing together, I suspect the message is directed more at Bamako’s still-divided political class than at their rebellious northern compatriots. These Malians want the world to know that while they hate war, they’re now facing an enemy that does not share their disposition to dialogue and compromise. They will do what’s necessary to defend their country.
The multiethnic, multilingual display of artistry in “Mali-ko” is an inspiring reminder of another thing I’ve come to love about Malian society: its long history of peaceful conflict resolution and inter-group harmony. Yet the absence of the country’s best-known Tuareg musicians from this project is conspicuous. The project’s lone participant of Tuareg ethnicity is Ahmed Ag Kaedi, leader of the group Amanar. I can’t avoid wondering if he was only pressed into service after Mali’s more famous Tuareg artists (Tinariwen, Tartit, Takamba Super Onze) either espoused the separatist cause or had to flee Mali fearing for their safety. Many Tuareg viewing this video are probably wondering the same thing.
Nonetheless, the most important message from the artists behind “Mali-ko” is that the Malian people are ready and willing to stand up to the threat before them. The Malian armed forces, still reeling from a string of battlefield defeats, badly need to hear this message. Mali is a place where words can conjure victory even in the darkest hour.