THE BIG READ: Striking peace chords
As musicians from Mali took to a London stage on Saturday night, news was announced that, back home, French troops had captured the airport of the Islamist-controlled city of Gao.
A cheer went up - and not surprisingly.
Since militants seized control of Mali's north after a military coup in March the country has been convulsed by conflict.
Its musical community, whose singers and players have won worldwide acclaim, has been targeted by the hardline Islamists who are bent on imposing sharia, or Islamic law. Concerts have been banned, clubs closed, instruments smashed and burned, musicians harassed and forced to flee.
The weekend's Sahara Soul concert at London's Barbican, featuring Bassekou Kouyate, Sidi Toure and the desert blues band Tamikrest, showcased the country's musical riches and called for peace. But it also indicated that there were different visions of what peace will entail.
"There is just one message - peace," Toure said backstage before the concert. "If you filled this room with gold and diamonds, it would not be more important than peace."
Toure hails from Gao, which is on the banks of the River Niger in the Sahel region, and performs Songhai folk songs that have an almost trance-inducing beat. Music, he said, was ingrained in Malian life.
"When you feel bad, only music can cure you. We have many different kinds - for your first child, for weddings and for parties."
But music has been forbidden in Gao since an official of the Ansar Dine (Followers of God) militant group stated in August: "We do not want Satan's music."
"At the cultural centre, they made a fire in the street of all the instruments. Now all the musicians have left, for Bamako, Niger and Burkina Faso," Toure said.
Malians welcomed the French military action three weeks ago as Islamist forces advanced on the capital, Bamako, he said.
"Without the French intervention, it would have been the end of Mali. The French saved Mali."
Until the war pushed Mali to the forefront of US and European security concerns because of fears the Islamists would turn the country into a base for international terrorism, Mali was probably best defined for the outside world by its music. It is seen as the wellspring of American blues, transported to Mississippi and Memphis by slaves.
Artists such as Amadou and Mariam, the blind couple from Bamako, have sold millions of recordings and fill concert halls worldwide. The desert blues band Tinariwen, born out of the Tuareg rebellion, won a Grammy award last year.
The journey to the annual Festival in the Desert, held near the fabled city of Timbuktu, was a pilgrimage for many foreigners, among them former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and U2's Bono. That will not happen this year.
"Today Mali is different because of terrorism by those who want to impose sharia; no music, TV, telephones or democracy. This is no good," Kouyate told the audience.
Kouyate, from Segou, southern Mali, plays a wooden acoustic instrument called the ngoni, a forebear of the banjo. He recalled that on the day of the military coup last March his band had just started recording their latest album in Bamako. They heard the shooting in the streets.
His final song, Ne Me Fatigue Pas, takes aim at the coup that brought down an elected government.
The coup gave new impetus to a long-running Tuareg separatist rebellion in the Sahara desert to the north. The rebellion was swiftly taken over by the Islamists, many said to be foreign veterans of the Afghan and Libyan battlefields.
Last week, a host of Malian musicians, including Amadou and Mariam, recorded a song for peace in Bamako under the banner Voices United for Mali.
"Malian people look to us," singer Fatoumata Diawara, the project organiser, said in Bamako. "They have lost hope in politics. But music has always brought hope in Mali."
The lyrics refer directly to the situation in the north, saying: "Such catastrophe, such desolation . tell the north that our Mali is one nation, indivisible!"
Tamikrest took to the stage in London in desert robes to play their songs of struggle, the hypnotic guitar jams punctuated by ululations.
But leader Ousmane Ag Mossa made clear beforehand that, though he was all for peace, Malian solidarity was a different matter.
The government, based in the south, was just as much a problem as the Islamists, he said.
"We have never seen Mali as one country. Our movement is for our independence. We are the children of suffering. There have been a lot of massacres against us. It was always like this.
"Now they want to destroy us under the banner of fighting terrorism. The message of the music is always peace. But the musicians of the south are only finding out now what has been going on," he said.
For the show's finale the three bands joined each other on stage for a rousing jam fusing electric guitars, ngonis, scratch percussion and vocals.
A fleeting moment of unity, or a sign that Malians might one day achieve harmony? - Reuters