In Mali, a Star Singer Calls for War

After a crackdown on music, Baba Salah wants to keep Islamists out of his hometown.
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A girl walks by a building pockmarked with bullet holes from fighting in Gao, March 13 2013. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

BAMAKO, Mali -- American musicians who write songs about war almost always call for it to be avoided. Here in Mali, one of the most popular songs in the country does the exact opposite.

"Dangay," by a well-known Malian singer and guitarist named Baba Salah, fiercely condemns the Islamist occupation of northern Mali and openly calls for the use of force to end it.

"Even at the cost of our lives, we need to join hands to fight the invaders and liberate our occupied territories," Salah sings in his native Songhai. "People of the north of Mali, do not think that we've forgotten you. We will soon release you from your captors."

The song is unusually political for Salah, who has performed widely in Europe and Africa and is better known for love songs. But he is also a native of the north, and the Islamists' efforts to ban music in Salah's hometown of Gao -- and their destruction of a youth orchestra he'd helped fund there -- hit him hard. The crackdown on Gao's music scene was just one part of the punishment inflicted on Salah's hometown. Islamists forced Gao's women to wear the veil, closed many schools, amputated the hands of thieves and flogged those suspected of adultery or other sexual improprieties.

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Baba Salah. (Yochi Dreazen)

Salah's anger over what was being done to Gao, he told me in an interview here, was the genesis of the song.

"The north used to be full of music and dancing, but that's gone now," Salah said. "These terrorists took a culture that had been there for centuries and tried to destroy it in a few months."

Salah's American producer, Paul Chandler, said the musician originally wrote the song as an instrumental. Chandler said that he asked Salah to add the lyrics after the Islamists cemented their control of the north, including Gao, a year ago.

They recorded Dangay - which is Songhai for "north" -- in October and released it the following month.

"Baba was being realistic about the fact that it was going to take a military intervention to dislodge the people who had taken the north," Chandler told me. "He's not someone who would support things like the Iraq War, but he was realistic about what was needed here."

The song immediately went into heavy rotation on Malian radio stations, a reflection of the widespread fury across the country over the Islamist occupation and the government's inability to end it. A recent French military intervention has dislodged the extremists from Gao and other major northern cities, but it will take years for the region to recover from the occupation and heavy fighting.

Salah is an unusual hybrid of a musician. He says his main inspirations are Jimi Hendrix and Jackson Browne, and his albums and live shows reflect the influence of those two very different artists. Salah plays guitar like Hendrix, making heavy use of amplifier feedback and distortion, but he sings in a slow, sweet voice that is clearly modeled on Browne. One of Salah's most prized possessions is a guitar the American singer gave him on a visit here.

Salah was born in Gao, then a center of Mali's bustling music scene, and taught himself percussion and guitar before being accepted into the prestigious National Academy of the Arts in Bamako. In the mid-1990s, Salah began touring with Oumou Sangare, one of the best-known African musicians in the world. His virtuoso guitar playing during her live shows drew the attention of musicians like Browne and effectively launched his career as a solo artist.

Salah lives in an enormous house at the end of a dusty, trash-strewn street here in Bamako. When I visited recently, several of Salah's young children were chasing each other around a living room bigger than many Malian apartments. A giant flatscreen TV was turned to a French news channel, the sound turned off.

Salah, who has sleepy eyes and a quick smile, walked up several flights of stairs to a top-floor rehearsal space and studio. A small room in the corner had state-of-the-art sound mixing equipment and walls lined with thick, sound-dampening padding. The sunny main room looked out over the brownish mountains that ring Bamako. "This is where I come to think," Salah told me.

He picked up an electrical guitar and apologized that a citywide blackout meant he'd have to play acoustic. Eyes closed, Salah's fingers danced across his guitar as he sang a gentle ballad called "Haira," which he'd written several years ago as a tribute to his mother.

Salah's parents still live in Gao, the north's largest city, and he has long maintained a close connection to his hometown. Salah used some of the money he earned from his album sales and touring to fund the expansion of a local youth orchestra in Gao and buy new guitars, drums, keyboards and sound systems for its musicians. The Islamists sacked the orchestra building when they conquered Gao, however, and destroyed all of its instruments. Most of the musicians fled to Bamako or cities in neighboring countries like Niger, and its not clear how many will return.

Salah himself used to travel to Gao regularly to perform and spend time with his family, but he left the city one week before Islamists took the city last spring and hasn't been back in nearly a year. Salah's says the de facto exile from his hometown clearly weighs heavily on him. "The longer I'm away from Gao, the more I miss it," he told me.

Salah spent much of last fall finishing the rest of the songs on his current album, which is also called Dangay, but hopes to begin touring again overseas in coming months. In the meantime, he plays Friday and Saturday night shows at local venues here that start just before midnight and end several sweaty hours later. Salah normally sings in at least five languages, sometimes in the same song. His cover of Bob Marley's "Get Up Stand Up," for instance, alternates between English, Songhai, and Bambara, another language of the north.

Salah is looking forward to returning to Gao soon to perform free shows for its beleaguered population and fund the reconstruction of its moribund youth orchestra. Even with the city back under nominal government control, however, Salah has no plans to stop performing Dangay. The economic, social and racial problems that have afflicted the north for decades and touched off a series of rebellions there won't be going away anytime soon, and Salah said that Malians need to remember that the region could easily descend back into chaos.

"There's still a need for the song," Salah told me near the end of our conversation. "It's too soon to even think about retiring it."


Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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Yochi J. Dreazen

Yochi Dreazen is writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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