Review | Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali by Andy Morgan

Music, Culture, and Conflict in Mali: Music, Mausoleums, Ancient Manuscripts, Literature, Film, Theatre and Islamism in Mali by Andy Morgan. Copenhagen, Denmark: Freemuse, 2013. $19.99 (paperback)/$8.99 (ePub) [] Includes list of interviewees.

Reviewed by Eric J. Schmidt


Reputed as a model democracy and celebrated for its impressive output of high-quality, world-renowned music, Mali for years has been the darling of many Africanists. However, its esteemed status has been put into serious question following a series of destabilizing events that began in 2012.[1] In January of that year, Tuareg separatists representing the new National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) began attacking Malian army garrisons in the Saharan north of the country.[2] Although Tuareg separatist movements have been recurring affairs in Mali since its independence in 1960, the present conflict differed in that the rebels had access to greater quantities of powerful munitions than ever before, smuggled in from Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Even more troubling, the series of setbacks that the Malian army experienced led frustrated junior officers to stage a coup d’état in March 2012, putting Mali’s elected government as well as its military into complete disarray. As Issa N’Diaye of the University of Bamako writes: “The brutal fall of ATT [ex-President Amadou Toumani Touré] has left the rotten foundations of a Malian democracy so lauded by outsiders completely naked” (N’Diaye 2012, quoted in Morgan 2013:171).

Of course, musicians often make valuable commentators on turbulent social dynamics, and changing political landscapes do not necessarily threaten their livelihoods. But what followed the coup d'état began to put the vitality of Malian music into question: with the army in disarray, Tuareg were able to lay claim to all of northern Mali, an area comprising about two-thirds of the entire nation (about the size of France), and declared independence for a new state, Azawad. In order to succeed in this conflict, however, many Tuareg separatists felt there was no choice but to ally, unified by a common opponent, with various Islamist groups operating in the region, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar ud-Dine, and the Movement for Divine Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). This was a costly decision, for these movements were better funded and in little time wrested control of northern Mali's major cities (including Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal) away from the secularist MNLA, allowing them to begin imposing their visions of shari’a law on the diverse local populations. Reports of horrific human rights abuses began to trickle out through various media, but it was not until stories emerged about the destruction of tombs belonging to Sufi saints, the burning of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu, and the banning of music in northern Mali that the international community became truly outraged.

Mali at the height of the conflict, in January 2013. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


While some academics have attempted to explain these continually evolving and overwhelmingly labyrinthine sociopolitical dynamics (see Lecocq et al. 2013 for an excellent overview), Andy Morgan’s Music, Culture, and Conflict in Mali provides particularly valuable insight to the present crisis with regard to its impact on Malian cultural activity. As Morgan explains his choice to focus on the impact of the turbulent crisis in Mali on music and culture:

[It is not intended] to belittle the general or “non-cultural” suffering of the people of northern Mali in any way. That suffering has been acute and widely publicized. The focus of this book is culture. Mali is a country whose culture is renowned throughout the world. It is a source of pride, stability and wealth, both human and economic, at home. Culture is Mali’s greatest ambassador abroad. (2013:21)

Indeed, as he indicates throughout the book, the culture of Mali has been extremely instrumental in attracting international interest in the crisis, which in part led to the intervention of French troops and UN peacekeeping forces that have helped to stabilize Mali and pave the way for national elections held in July and November 2013.

Morgan is a journalist, and therefore readers should not expect the book to critically engage with literature from ethnomusicology and cognate fields. However, a long career working with and writing about musicians in northwest Africa, and particularly in the Sahara, provides him a valuable depth and breadth of knowledge that many ethnographers would envy. Morgan has a knack for sharing compelling and humanizing stories that draw the reader in without undermining his nuanced accounting of this region, something that few journalists can or choose to offer. As he notes:

Northern Mali is a hard territory for any outsider to understand properly and that goes for southern Malians too. There’s some black, and some white, but also an awful lot of grey, and the endless reporting in both the national and international media that ignores that grey, treating it as a mere inconvenience, is dispiriting. (2013:167)

Morgan’s book is an excellent examination of the contradictory forces in the “war on culture” (212) currently led by Islamists in Mali. Indeed, the book first emerged as a report for Freemuse, an organization striving to aid musicians who suffer persecution, discrimination, or imprisonment worldwide;[3] it is also his first book since retiring from his work as manager for the preeminent Tuareg band Tinariwen. Music, Culture, and Conflict in Mali represents an essential resource for anyone, scholar or layperson, seeking to grasp the Malian crisis, contemporary West African culture, and the impact of extremist movements on cultural production.[4]

The book is structured thematically in twenty chapters. Within each chapter, Morgan brilliantly weaves together sketches of broad sociopolitical dynamics with anecdotes about the experiences of particular individuals. The focus, as the title suggests, is on music, but this discussion takes multiple dimensions in the first half of the book: Morgan not only outlines the history of various forms of Islam in Mali, but integrates this story with anecdotes about music before and after northern Mali was overrun by Islamist groups; how Muslim musicians have reacted to these ideologies; the fate of musicians in northern Mali, in exile (e.g., in refugee camps), and in Bamako; and how musicians and rappers from throughout Mali have protested these developments. Particularly noteworthy is the chapter “Without Music, Mali Will Die: The Musical and Cultural Activists of Mali Speak,” which is comprised entirely of excerpts from Morgan’s interviews with musicians, artists, and activists in which they express their passionate and diverse reactions to the banning of music in northern Mali. The second half of the book is dedicated to other aspects of culture, including cinema, theater, literature, mass media, intellectual circles, historic manuscripts, and sites of religious significance such as shrines and mausoleums. Each of these realms of cultural activity are incredibly fascinating, especially for those who may be less familiar with non-musical arts.

A complete table of contents for the book may be viewed here, but I wish to highlight the chapter “Showing Another World: Kotéba and the ‘Theatre of Resistance’ in
 Mali” because it is representative of how Morgan develops compelling narratives in each chapter from interviews, anecdotes, and background information. It begins with historical contextualization that gives a sense of how the work of playwrights, directors, and actors has evolved since Malian independence and how it has been impacted by the current crisis. Morgan discusses the impact of French colonialism, which instilled future leaders of post-independence West African nations with an appreciation for European drama and literature through such institutions as the École Normale William Ponty (Senegal). He also examines national projects in Mali (such as the founding of the National Institute of Arts and the National Theater), the localization of theater through a transition from performances in French to those in Bambara and other local languages, and the continuing significance of traditional dramatic arts like kotéba. The second half of the chapter is a case study profiling Tisrawt, allegedly the only theater troupe operating in northern Mali. Comprised of Tuareg from Kidal, Tisrawt bravely conveys messages in French and Tamashek (Tuareg language) about the challenges facing their community, such as trafficking, crime, banditry, and extremism. Unfortunately, as has been the case for many other artists that Morgan profiles, instability throughout Mali has presented some as-yet insurmountable challenges that have forced the group to cancel performances.

The emphasis throughout the book is primarily on professional productions, as a recurring theme is how the decline of funding resources for artists is putting their livelihoods in jeopardy. Given the thematic structure of the book, however, readers have the opportunity to compare various fields of cultural production and can recognize that, while all Malians have been struggling in some way or another, the impact has been uneven: some musicians, for example, have gained a special prominence as what kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté has called “true ambassadors” for Mali, while cinema projects relying on larger amounts of capital have essentially ground to a halt (Morgan 2013:93-94, 191-192, 209). Of course, this experience is not ubiquitous, and musicians forced into exile from northern Mali have not had access to this same “ambassador” status as some of their counterparts. Morgan devotes a chapter, “Not Like the Parties We Had at Home,” to these exiled musicians, who may be part of the largest migration to ever take place in this part of the Sahara. He highlights some of the problems that refugee musicians face: loss of traditional performance opportunities, dispersal of band members to different locations and countries, and a lack of understanding and flexibility in consular offices for handling refugee status and thus an inability to obtain visas for performance tours in Europe. In addition to losing a material livelihood, professional musicians who have fled northern Mali must contend with the emotional toll of their own discouragement. “Music doesn't die when it goes into exile,” Morgan notes, “but somehow its energy, joy, and confidence diminish” (ibid.:58).

Morgan’s book is a testament to the tremendous contributions that those musicians who are fortunate enough to stay active make as ambassadors raising global awareness of the Malian crisis. He cites Fatoumata Diawara as an exemplar of this trend. She has appeared on primetime television talk shows to discuss Mali in a way that not only provides a more positive light on what Mali offers the world, but also helps get audiences to appreciate and relate to Malian events in more meaningful ways than many analysts, politicians, or military leaders can. Indeed, Morgan argues that Mali’s vibrant music output has provided a soundtrack that humanizes stories about the crisis. Contrast Mali with other countries facing similar struggles that have seen less widespread musical output (he cites Somalia or Yemen as examples), and it becomes clear the effect that musical production has had in chronicling the Malian crisis.

Fatoumata Diawara interviewed on CNN about Mali and her recording project “United Voices for Mali.” Aired February 5, 2013.

“Mali Ko (‘Peace’),” a music video released by the collaborative recording project “United Voices for Mali” that features many of Mali’s most esteemed musicians performing for peace in Mali. Ad revenues generated from views of the video are donated to charities aiding Malian refugees. Released January 19, 2013.

There are of course a few shortcomings in the book, most of which I would credit to its rapid publication (in contrast to the elongated peer-review process for academic texts). For academic readers, the foremost issue relates to Morgan’s references to his sources and interlocutors. Although in his opening acknowledgements Morgan thanks a number of authors, publications (newspapers, journals, blogs, etc.), and a Tuareg research assistant for their contributions, there is no bibliography and only occasional citation of specific sources within the body of the text. This choice was deliberate, in order to “not burden [himself] or the reader” (Morgan 2013:8). While Morgan does encourage readers to explore various publications and authors for more information, academic readers may find it problematic that there is not at least a bibliography of specific articles and books to which to refer. This issue perhaps merely reflects the nature of journalistic writing with which Morgan is working.

Nonetheless, Music, Culture, and Conflict in Mali is an incredibly necessary and highly recommended work for sharing the story of Mali during the past two years. Synthesizing the confusing recent developments in Mali is a lion’s task; in fact, no fewer than eight contributors try to provide a thorough account of the Malian crisis in a packed, sixteen-page article forthcoming in the Review of African Political Economy (Lecocq et al. 2013). Morgan emphasizes that “it is clear that there's nothing conclusive about the current state of affairs in Mali” (Morgan 2013:208), and it is perhaps most fitting that in this book he shares a collection of moving stories of human experience rather than anonymous statistics, blow-by-blow accounts, or some sort of unified assessment of the crisis. From the pen of a single author we begin to have a sense of the diverse, sometimes contradictory, and fundamentally human way in which Malians are handling their present challenges.

Most compelling, however, is Morgan’s unfaltering faith in the necessity of cultural activity. For Morgan, Malian culture is more than just the object of his study; it is the solution to the crisis. In his conclusion, Morgan notes that in the “war on terror”—which he instead identifies as a “war on culture”—people throughout the Muslim world are often presented with a choice between polar opposites: “pure,” “unadulterated” Islamic ideologies on one hand or Western “corruption” on the other. But, finding inspiration in the vibrant cultural history of Mali and Islam, Morgan argues:

There is a third way, one that colonialism, post-colonialism and globalization have unfortunately obscured and in some cases almost obliterated. It requires individuals and governments to trust in their own local culture and traditions; both spiritual and temporal. It requires them to believe that a just system of government, law, education and development can be based on home-grown foundations that are neither Western nor Salafi or Wahabi. (2013:213)

In order for this to become reality, he later explains, culture must continue to be vital and strong, especially in areas like music and theater that reach across broad class lines. As Mali attempts to emerge from this crisis following the election of a new president in July 2013, one hopes that Malian culture continues to be recognized as a valuable resource for establishing a stable and vibrant nation.


Eric J. Schmidt is a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology. His primary research interests address music of the Sahara and Sahel regions of northwest Africa, particularly in Niger and Mali. He earned his MA from UCLA and his BA in Music (Jazz Studies) from American University, and has been a performer of Scottish highland bagpipe, saxophone, and ‘ud, among other instruments. Eric is currently Managing Editor for the Ethnomusicology Review Sounding Board.



Durán, Lucy. 1999. “Mande Sounds: West Africa’s Musical Powerhouse.” In World Music: The Rough Guide, edited by Simon Broughton, Mark Ellingham, and Richard Trillo, 539-562. London: The Rough Guides.

Lecocq, Baz, Gregory Mann, Bruce Whitehouse, Dida Badi, Lotte Pelckmans, Nadia Belalimat, Bruce Hall, and Wolfram Lacher. 2013. “One Hippopotamus and Eight Blind Analysts: A Multivocal Analyis of the 2012 Political Crisis in the Divided Republic of Mali [Extended Editors’ Cut].” Forthcoming in Review of African Political Economy 137. Manuscript available at: (accessed 15 April 2013).

Morgan, Andy. 2013. Music, Culture, and Conflict in Mali: Music, Mausoleums, Ancient Manuscripts, Literature, Film, Theatre and Islamism in Mali. Copenhagen, Denmark: Freemuse.

N'Diaye, Issa. 2012. “Mali - une ‘démocratie’ contre le peuple!” AfricAvenir. April 29. archive/newsdetails/datum/2012/05/05/pr-issa-ndiaye-mali-une-democratie- contre-le-peuple.html (accessed 10 June 2013).

[1] See, for example, Durán 1999 and Lecocq et al. 2013.

[2] I have opted to employ the local French language acronyms for political organizations; the one exception is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is more widely referred to in Anglophone press as “AQIM.”

[3] See as well as, an affiliated program aiming to share stories of and interviews with artists who have been subjected to violations of artistic freedom of expression in countries around the world.

[4] Readers interested in these issues may wish to explore Morgan’s other writings, which have appeared in several news and music publications, and some of which are available on his website ( He also maintains an active social media presence ( with ongoing commentary on music, culture, and politics in northwest Africa.


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