Last updated: 07:00 PM ET, Sat November 21 2015

Mali: Trouble in Africa's Musical Paradise

Impacting Travel | Josh Lew | November 21, 2015

Mali: Trouble in Africa's Musical Paradise

PHOTO: Bamako. (photo courtesy of Thinkstock)

The African nation of Mali is in the headlines after an attack on a Radisson Blu in the capital city of Bamako.

People who have been following events in the North African nation for the past few years will probably not be surprised by the hotel siege. Mali has been dealing with different rebel groups and terrorist organizations for some time now. The trouble started with a rebellion by Tuareg fighters in the north of the country. They allied themselves with terrorist groups and were able to capture large portions of territory, including the famous city of Timbuktu. 

Malian forces and their French allies eventually drove the rebels away from the country's population centers, but the situation is still dangerous. A ceasefire with surviving rebels was signed in early 2015, but the risk for violence continues.  

Mali used to be a haven for tourists

Because of vast deserts, Mali and its neighbors have always been a bit lawless away from the cities. However, before its recent troubles, Mali was known as one of the most accessible destinations in the region. 

Timbuktu’s storied architecture (and its place in African lore) made it a popular stop for tourists making their way through the region. You can't talk about Malian tourism, though, without mentioning the nation's musical universe.

Africa's musical heartland

For years, Mali was the center of the world's Afro-pop scene. By blending traditional instruments with contemporary styles, Malians like Salif Keita were able to create an accessible musical genre that quickly gained popularity around the world. Another popular Malian musician, Ali Farka Toure, earned recognition for his guitar skills from magazines like Rolling Stone. The media coverage served to further popularize Mali’s music scene. 

Many musicians left Mali for a time, seeking lucrative gigs in Europe, America and other parts of francophone Africa. The exodus helped these musicians earn a place in the popular “world music” scene. Many, including Keita, returned to Mali to record, perform and engage in philanthropy. Meanwhile, new genres like wassoulou, a fusion of electronic and folk music, were created in Mali.

Africa's Woodstock

Famous musicians from Mali and abroad have taken part in the annual Festival au Desert, a sort of African Woodstock that was held until 2012 in the desert outside Timbuktu. Several documentaries have been made about the fest and international stars like Bono have taken the stage alongside Afro-pop guitarists and Tuareg rock bands. The last three editions of Festival au Desert have been canceled because of security concerns.  

It's too dangerous to rock and roll

Even before the Radisson attack, foreign offices had been warning their citizens about travel to Mali. There was an attack on a Bamako restaurant that was popular with expats earlier this year, and rebel groups have still been active, using hit-and-run tactics against Malian forces and UN peacekeepers. The U.K.’s foreign office has been warning of terror threats since 2009, well before the Tuareg rebellion began. 

The most recent attack on the Radisson will make it even more difficult for Mali to get back to those days of musical bliss. The country’s Afro-pop stars are touring overseas, but music-loving tourists will have to look elsewhere (Dakar, Senegal, for example) to get the full, authentic African musical experience.


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