Malian voices united (mostly)

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.)

Fatoumata Diawara at the Voices United for Mali press conference on Thursday, 17 January 2013. Photograph by Moustapha Diallo, from the website of The Guardian [UK])

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.


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32 Responses to Malian voices united (mostly)

  1. Wow, Bruce! Great post. Thank you so much. Very interesting points about the Tuareg absence. Maybe you could correct me if I am wrong, or point me to a post that illuminates the contours of this situation: Was it not the case that MNLA teamed up with Ansar Dine AQIM, and MUJWA to establish their own sovereign territory? And did the MNLA and these other groups have a falling out/go their separate ways once their mutual enemy was pacified? If this is the case, where does MNLA stand with the Malian government and with these other groups now?

    • Moussa says:

      Just speaking about Tinawiren, it has always been about Tuareg nationalism. They were formed in Gaddhafi’s training camps. Ag Ghaly himself helped them buy their first instruments and equipment. They are probably not welcomed by the other musicians here because of their support for the MNLA, but they also against Ansar Dine and their former supporter Ag Ghaly, considering the ban on music music and Ansar Dine arrested a band member.

  2. Allan MacLeod says:

    Hi Bruce, Very interesting post! I hope the radicals in the Bamako area can realize that these singers are leading the Malians in saying, “We don’t want radical Islam here!”
    An koni, Toubabu, k’an ce siri fana, walisa ka Maliba deme!” I’m sure you will understand that!

  3. Thank you for the translation, as a non French or Bambara speaker, I’ve been wondering what the essence of the song was, and it seems it is even stronger than I imagined.

    I spent time in Mali in the mid 90s including time in the Timbuktu, like so many others drawn there by the music. It’s wonderful to have found your blog and be able to get a better sense of what is going on there now.


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  5. Klaas Tjoelker says:

    Thanks Bruce for the text and some analysis, and especially for sharing this with people who love Mali and Malian music. There is just one Tuareg with the singers, you write, but I’d like to recall that Khaïra Arby is of mixed Berrabiche-Tamachek descendance.
    Many greetings from Bamako,

  6. mechathomas says:

    I guess Tamikrest are currently on tour in Europe ( They played a concert at the beginning of January in Hamburg and will play various concerts, starting 23 January.

    For Tinariwen, it seems that they kept staying in Timbouctou despite the Islamists’ presence ( Generally there are few information about their situation but Ansar Dine caught one of their members, guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida ( Definitely they could have chosen to flee and play some gigs in the world. Now they are threatened in their home for exercising their passion.

  7. Vicki Rovine says:

    Hi Bruce–It’s wonderful to have this translation and analysis of the lyrics. Could you tell me what the Bamana original is for Soumaila Kanouté’s portion, about being forced to wear other people’s clothing? I’m curious about that. Many thanks, Vicki

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      I’ve actually revised that bit, Vicki. The original “dulɔki min t’i ta di, i ye dulɔki nin don na” literally means “The garment [duloki] that’s not yours, you’ve put on that garment.” So I think it’s actually a metaphor about theft, about taking what doesn’t belong to you, not a reference to sharia law.

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  9. Matt Mueller says:

    Awesome post, as always. Thanks Bruce!

  10. mheberger says:

    Great stuff Bruce. For what it’s worth, Banning Eyre from Afropop Worldwide did a long interview with Tinariwen’s Abdallah Ag Alhousseini in July 2012. That seems like a loooong time ago now.

  11. Sanjay says:

    Thank you so much for sharing! Allows those of who are so far away, but who have Mali in their hearts, to commune with our Malian brothers and sisters! Peace, Sanjay

  12. Seb Mann says:

    Thank you for this excellent translation! I have replaced the translation on the soundcloud, with yours. I hope that is ok.

  13. Angela from Sydney says:

    I’d like to echo the sentiments above. Bruce, for us English-speakers your blog has to be the next best thing to being in Mali. I have been shedding tears about this conflict, partly for selfish reasons – I wanted to travel to Mali next. With all the interest the country has been getting, you never know, it might just get the rejuvenation it seems to desperately need.
    Thanks, I can’t wait to check out the video and lyrics.
    Best regards from Sydney

  14. sahelcalling says:

    Bruce, this is the most honest, direct, level and informative post I have seen since last April on the topic of musicians and the contradictions they must face, challenges they must have, and what lies on the surface and beneath, Want to come advise our project? 🙂 …we’ll be in Mali soon, currently in Dakar…I’d be interested to see any interpretation/comments you have of Tiken Jah’s call for an ka wili…?

  15. sara horgan says:

    a couple of points : the credits clearly say thank you “to all those artists who responded to our call” : the absence of Tinariwen and other Touareg groups could be explained by checking out who is on tour, or those who now describe their bases as being (temporarily ?) outside Mali, as Tinariwen are doing. Vieux Farka Toure and Afel Bocoum are both from Niafounke, in the Tombouctou Region : Niafounke was also the famous home town of Ali Farka Toure, Vieux’s father. I don’t know precisely where Baba Salah is from, although presumably in the same Region.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Yes, Khaira Arby is from Timbuktu, Baba Salah is from Gao. As for Tinariwen, they have espoused separatism and flown Azawad flags in their European concerts over the past year, which surely won’t endear them to audiences in Bamako.

      • Sharon Kivenko says:

        Thanks for a great post and your blog, in general. I want to suggest that there must be other reasons for Tinariwen’s absence from the Mali Ko project. Why wouldn’t they SING in concert with other artists not only calling for peace, but also speaking about against the imposition of Shari’a law, which would make Malian women’s lives very difficult and which prohibits playing and listening to music? Under current Islamist rule in Northern Mali, Tinariwen is not allowed to do at home that for which they are celebrated and internationally renowned.

  16. sara horgan says:

    As far as i know, Khaira Arby is actually from the townof Tombouctou.

  17. Many thanks for the translation and all the illuminating commentary. It’s great to see this effort to round out the wider public’s understanding of the Malian people’s reactions to the tragic events of these past several months.

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  19. Chris Eckman says:

    The Tuaregs that I know refuse to go to Bamako out of fear of reappraisals. Whether that is justified or not (there certainly were some incidents last winter) can be debated, but that is what I have been directly told. And while Tinariwen clearly have supported separatism, they have also been equally clear from the beginning of the current crisis that they do not support violence as a means by which to achieve it.

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  21. Mim Heisey says:

    Insightful as always. thanks


  23. Zakariah says:

    The artists are singing about preserving a musical culture not literally preparing for war
    You need to understand more about the role of the djeli as artist
    They are saying that the greatness of mali is its art not its border

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      It’s worth pointing out that many of these singers are not jeliw (griots). And while I don’t entirely share your interpretation of these lyrics, I recognize that they lend themselves to multiple meanings.

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