Conflict fails to silence Mali's music

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The neon-lit dance floor at Tiken Jah Fakoly's club is empty for a Friday night, but a few determined dozens have braved a state of emergency, security checkpoints and the fear of an ongoing war to come sway to Mali's legendary music.

The headliner and only act tonight at the Ivory Coast-born reggae star's Radio Libre nightclub is Ami Kouyate, an up-and-coming singer from a renowned family of griots -- the musicians, poets and storytellers who are the keepers of west Africa's oral history.

Some 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) northeast of this night oasis in Bamako, the Malian capital, is the edge of a combat zone where French-led troops are fighting Al-Qaeda-linked rebels who seized control of northern Mali last year and have now launched a campaign of suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks.

The conflict seems far away as Kouyate's emotive voice washes over the audience and the drummer's hands blur in the stage lights, the rapid-fire staccato of his djembe punctuating the slow chords of two electric guitars and an ngoni, or stringed calabash, in the polyrhythmic style for which Mali is famous.

But the 40-odd people in the room are a meagre crowd for Radio Libre.

"Since the crisis started not many people come here. People are afraid to go out," says Djeneba Kouyate, the singer's sister, who has come with about a dozen friends.

Fakoly, an icon of African reggae famous for his politically charged songs, says the crisis is hurting the music scene in a country known as the cradle of the blues.

"When there's no crisis in Mali, at 11:00 pm, midnight on a Friday night, there are lots of people. But now there's practically no one," he tells AFP behind the double layer of leather-padded doors that insulate his private recording studio from the sounds of the club upstairs.

"But this is better than before. Since the intervention in the north, people are starting to go out. There was a time when we had to close completely because no one was coming."

Getting to the club from downtown Bamako means spending half an hour sitting in a long line of cars at a security checkpoint where police with AK-47s check drivers' papers and look in the boots of their cars, a bid to stop the string of suicide bombings that have shaken the northeast from spreading to Bamako.

Mali is currently under a state of emergency declared on January 12, the day after France began sending fighter jets, attack helicopters and 4,000 troops to stop Islamist rebels from marching on Bamako.

Under the government decree, public gatherings, rallies and anything that can disrupt public order are banned.

Fakoly, 44, opened Radio Libre in September 2010, eight years after fleeing a conflict that effectively cut his home country in two.

He says it has saddened him to watch his adopted country descend into a crisis of its own.

He has made two singles about the situation in Mali -- a solo effort called "An Ka Wili" ("Let's Rise Up") that recalls Malian warriors such as Samory Toure, who resisted French colonisation, and "Mali Ko" ("For Mali"), a collaboration with some 40 other singers calling for peace.

He praises Mali's musical culture, which he calls "one of the richest" in the world, and rattles off a list of well-known colleagues he admires: Amadou and Mariam, Habib Koite, Salif Keita, Rokia Traore, Oumou Sangare.

Fakoly says a sense of solidarity compelled him to stay in Mali as it descended into chaos.

But he adds he would have likely fled with his family if Islamist fighters, who had banned secular music during their 10-month iron grip on the north, had made it to Bamako.

"I think that as one of the musicians who has sung songs like 'An Ka Wili', I would have been one of the most vulnerable people," he says.

Upstairs in the club, Mohamed Coulibaly, a 35-year-old engineer, says the Islamists may have banned music for a time but could never destroy Mali's musical spirit.

"It's unthinkable, impossible for music to be banned in Mali," he says. "Mali resonates to the sound of its griots."

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