Music Interviews
2:58 pm
Thu March 21, 2013

Baba Salah: A Malian Musician Speaks To His Nation's Displaced

Originally published on Thu March 21, 2013 6:33 pm

It's Friday night in Bamako, and a club in the Malian capital has come alive. Guitarist and singer Baba Salah is on the floor.

His hometown of Gao, along the banks of the River Niger on the fringes of the Sahara Desert, made headlines as the first city in the north to be liberated by French-backed Malian forces in January. Gao was one of three regional centers in the north captured by rebels and jihadis a year ago. Islamists warned musicians that their tongues would be sliced out if they continued to sing and play. Speaking in French, Salah says artists left in a hurry.

"When we heard and witnessed musical instruments being burned in Gao, we realized the threats against us were dead serious," Salah says. "So all the musicians vamoosed. It's as if part of our own culture was taken hostage."

They say Mali without music is a country without a soul.

"I ask myself if Mali can exist without music," Salah says. "Everything important in Mali is linked to music. Where I come from in the north, in our society, births, baptisms, naming and circumcision ceremonies, marriages — all are accompanied by music."

Baba Salah was in the studio, putting the finishing touches on his latest album, when Mali fell apart last year. He decided to call the new recording Dangay, which means "the north" in his Songhai language. The album, in part, sounds the alarm about the problems in his northern home region and what Salah describes as human-rights violations by the Islamist fighters who occupied a desert zone, the size of Texas, a year ago.

"What I'm saying in the album Dangay is, above all, that people must pay attention to what's been happening in the north regarding human-rights abuses and punishments," Salah says. "The world must not close its eyes and block its ears to what's been going on during the occupation of northern Mali."

The new album features songs about love, but also about social issues like child labor, the environment and farming — as in the track "Fari," which means "agriculture."

"You know, agriculture is the ideal engine for development in Africa," Salah says. "Mali is an influential country in West Africa, and I believe that when Mali rises up again, we will be an example for West Africa, as we were during our struggle for democracy. We have to develop our continent."

"Fari," performed live by Baba Salah and his band, has the patrons swaying and clapping on the dance floor at the club where he plays every Friday night. His fellow northerners gather to reminisce, relax, let off steam, exchange stories and enjoy the music. Salah says southerners do too, and it's a weekly date he simply can't miss.

"People laugh, they dance," Salah says. "For the three or four hours that we're playing, you forget everything and everyone becomes your brother. You see images other than war."

Salah says it warms his heart, and that he remains hopeful that Mali will come out right in the end.

"Music has a spiritual power to heal. It has a profound ability to overcome perhaps every hurdle," he says. "Maybe people are angry right now, and it's difficult to control some of them. But we condemn retaliation against anyone. We are all Malians; we are all brothers. If anyone has anything to say, let them put it on the table and make peace through dialogue."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now to another collision of life and art. When Islamist rebels took over parts of northern Mali, they imposed strict laws banning singing and dancing. In a culture for which music is central, musicians fled south to the capital, Bamako, or out of the country. Since then, a French-led offensive has pushed back the rebels and eased the restrictions. And now, one of Mali's best-known musicians from the north has released an album that explores this time of violence and change.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton recently met him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: It's Friday night in Bamako and this club, a live music venue in the Malian capital, has come alive. Guitarist and singer Baba Salah is on the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QUIST-ARCTON: His hometown, Gao, along the banks of the River Niger, on the fringes of the Sahara Desert, hit the headlines as the first city in the north to be liberated by French-backed Malian forces in January. Gao was one of three regional northern centers captured by rebels and jihadists a year ago. Islamists warned musicians that their tongues would be sliced out if they continued to sing and play. Salah says artists left in a hurry.

BABA SALAH: (Through Translator) When we saw them burning musical instruments in Gao, we realized the threats against us were dead serious. So, all the musicians fled. It is as if part of our own culture was taken hostage.

QUIST-ARCTON: They say Mali without music is a country without a soul.

SALAH: (Through Translator) That's so true. I ask myself if Mali can exist without music. Everything important in Mali is linked to music. Where I come from in the north, in our society, births, baptisms, naming and circumcision ceremonies, marriages, all are accompanied by music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QUIST-ARCTON: Baba Salah was in studio, putting the finishing touches to his latest album last year, when Mali fell apart. He decided to call the new recording "Dangay," which means "The North" in his Songhai language. The album, in part, sounds the alarm about the problems in his northern home region and what Salah describes as human rights violations by the Islamist fighters.

SALAH: (Through Translator) What I'm saying in the album "Dangay," is, above all, that people must pay attention to what's been happening in the north, regarding human rights abuses and punishments. The world must not close its eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

QUIST-ARCTON: The new album features songs about love, but also about social issues such as child labor, the environment and farming - like this track, "Fari," which means "Agriculture."

SALAH: (Through Translator) You know, agriculture is the ideal engine for development in Africa. We have to develop our continent.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

SALAH: (Singing in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: "Fari," performed live by Baba Salah and his band, has the patrons swaying and clapping on the dance floor at the club where he plays every Friday night.

SALAH: (Through Translator) People laughed, they danced. For the three or four hours that we were playing, you forgot everything and everyone becomes your brother. You see images other than war.

QUIST-ARCTON: Baba Salah says it warms his heart. And he's hopeful that Mali will come right in the end.

SALAH: (Through Translator) Music has a spiritual power to heal. It has a profound ability to overcome perhaps every hurdle. Maybe people are angry right now and it's difficult to control some of them. But we condemn retaliation against anyone. We are all Malians. We are all brothers. If anyone has anything to say, let them put it on the table and make peace through dialogue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(APPLAUSE)

QUIST-ARCTON: Baba Salah's new release is called "Dangay."

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

SALAH: (Singing in foreign language)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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