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.

Presented by

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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