‘Culture will win forever’ — Mali and the war for artistic freedom

Mali; Unlocking the new frontier for terrorism

The deteriorating state of the Sahel region (Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad) is one brimming with complexity.

For Mali, a country that prides itself for having more Grammy-awarded musicians than any other African country and a history that goes back thousands of years, it is a depressing sight to witness all of its richness being systematically erased by Islamist terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, who hide behind a façade of misinterpreted Islam.

Ali Farka Touré, Oumou Sangaré and Toumani Diabaté painted in front of Studio Bogolan, Bamako

Mali, which in Bambara translates to “the place where the king lives”, is famed for ancient cities like Timbuktu, mentioned in children’s tales across the globe. Centuries-old bard families act as a ‘living archive of people’s traditions, commanding universal admiration’ and are called Griots, retelling history and traditions in the form of music till this day. Past leaders such as Mansa Musa speckle Mali’s history, with Mansa considered to have been the richest man in the history of humanity, paying further homage to the unique cultural richness present in the country.

When you try to examine the root of terrorism in the Sahel region, there’s one big event that seems to strike one’s eye, an event that catalysed the recent rise of ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram; the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi by NATO in 2011, which allowed terrorist groups to expand their illicit businesses of selling weapons, drugs and Islamism across the Saharan desert.

Since 2012, the EU and the UN, under the leadership of France, have sent over 20,000 military personell into Mali to fight the most dangerous war against Islamist terrorism seen since Afghanistan.

The compounded effect of civilians being forced to live under strict Islamist rule, a continuation of armed conflict and a lack of economic development has resulted in the displacement of thousands of people, many escaping the restraints placed on traditional freedoms: “We can’t stand the Salafi way… We want our sisters to feel the wind in their hair”.

In July of this year, the Malian military decided to depose president Ibrahim Boubabcar Keïta, fed up by a lack of action towards the ethnic genocide committed by Islamists in the central and northern regions of Mali. More than 300,000 Malians are displaced by the war so far and terrorist groups continue to flood the region, destroying all forms of art and culture in its way.

‘We don’t want Satan’s music’ — Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Mali has witnessed the catastrophic banning of music, sport and all other forms of expression outside of the religious sphere. Here, ‘censorship is driven by a desire to control mass behaviour’.

Toumani Diabaté, a world-renowned, Grammy-award winning 71st Generation Griot, told me upon my arrival in Bamako last year, that even though the situation looks dire, that ‘culture will win forever’, speaking of the role musicians must play in fixing the ballooning national crisis.

My purpose of travelling to one of the most dangerous places on earth (thanks LSE for granting me permission), was to try and innovate the business practices of musicians in the country; to understand the social problems connected to their art and to bring tangible solutions to an industry that’s struggling to keep up with the platform-dense, digital music industry. It took three arduous months of preparation, meeting with ethnomusicologists, artists and Malian political representatives in London to solidify a field trip I was comfortable with.

After many weeks of living with musicians in the capital, holding focus groups in Studio Bogolan, the Diabaté griot compound, art schools and music stores, I began to piece together the underlying issue at hand.

Musical constructions of post-colonial Malian identity have historically been regarded as the primary method of building national unity since independence. Northern artists like Tinariwen or Tamikrest were seen to engage the Bambara people in the South, with Southern musical groups like Trio Da Kali and Songhoy Blues doing the same in the North.

Consequently, following the dismantling of this vital musical correspondence the diverse people of Mali shared, the conflict in the North has also caused the complete breakdown of social relations as well as a raging ethnic war not just between Islamist off-shoots of Tuareg rebels with the government, but also Bambara and Fula tribes over a climate-change caused water crisis.

Over the last 8 years of this conflict, it has become clear that the battle isn’t one to be fought by the Malian military’s AK-47’s or France’s drones. The battle is one to be disputed with cultural unification and conflict resolution. The true task at hand is; how can we leverage musical talent to expand the Malian music industry and, in turn, combat Islamist cultural oppression?

Fighting terrorism with music — Who would’ve thought!

Idrissa Coulibaly, my Malian business partner made a remark that truly opened my eyes to the extent by which art ruled every aspect of life in Mali. He proudly exclaimed that ‘Everybody performs an art here, whether it is masonry, painting, photography or music’, whilst he stretched leather over a calebasse, a step in the process of crafting a Kora.

Process of making a Kora

The talent pool for Malian musicians is vast. Yet, aside from ongoing censorship, career management in general is underdeveloped and has not adapted enough to the changing, digital nature of the modern music industry, where the revenue of music sales has dropped significantly.

A capability-building route for up and coming musicians and their managers, together with a safe community space for practitioners of art, may hold the key to both, helping mitigate cultural oppression and promote national unification on one side, and encourage revenue generation and diversification in the Malian music industry on the other.

Following the dissection of the value chain of musicians’ career development in Mali and the ethnographic analysis built around their needs and desires, an overarching theory of change was developed with assistance from the London School of Economics’ Social Innovation department, devising a series of impact-heavy processes that combine market-oriented techniques with the value drivers of the beneficiaries in question.

These self-sustainable business activities are to be initially operated through a digital platform, Mali Music Collective, then through a physical location following the easing of COVID-19 measures, Mali Music Center (MMC), supporting musicians’ career progression in Mali and diversifying their revenue streams as well as foreign currency acquisition.

Project Manager, Craftsman Idrissa Coulibaly with his self-made Kora

Core, Capacity-building Classes to be offered to musicians will be designed by music and business schools and will include:

  • Music & Craftsmanship
  • Music Management & Financial Competency
  • English & Foreign Language Classes
  • Negotiation & Conflict Resolution
  • IT & Social Media Marketing

Services offered by Malian musicians to global clients through our collective will revolve around:

  • Online music lessons
  • Sustainable, specialist cultural & music holidays in a Griot compound in Bamako
  • Sale of Artisan instruments (Kora, ngoni), clothing and accessories
  • Online brand store
  • Music production collaboration, outsourcing musical talent and studio sessions with international artists and bands facilitated through MMC.

Mali Music Center (MMC) will be launched in one of Toumani Diabaté’s compounds, which will feature a community space, over 10 rooms to host travelers interested in engaging with the majestic world of Mali’s ancient, ethereal sounding music and a technology-equipped classroom to be used for either online music tutoring offered globally or to digitise up and coming musical talent in Mali.

In conjunction with Toumani Diabaté, Idrissa Coulibaly and the traditional music community of the world, we aim to crowdfund and invest in uniting the country under one sound again and expelling toxicity and religious fanaticism from the region. We also hope to create a new wave of musical collaboration across the world with Mali’s artists, fusing various forms of sounds together and creating new ones in the process, with a recent example coming in the form of Fatoumata Diawara’s dance tracks ‘Douha’ and ‘Ultimatum’ with UK-based Disclosure.

Innovation is a marathon, not a sprint

One piece of advice I’d like readers to pick up from this story is to persistently adapt their business practices to the changing nature of their industry and its stakeholders. Whether you are in the NGO sector, the social innovation entrepreneurship space, or in a more hard-line corporate position with a little less room to breathe, it is essential to draw meaningful ways of thinking for your firm’s innovation from as many sources and cases as possible; academia, art, music, family, literature, culture or even games.

The way people spent their time in Bamako for example, casually and with little care about using up a few extra hours in the evening sitting in a courtyard, gave invaluable insight into what is important to them. Aside from providing for their family, they saw the greatest pleasure as a musician in the overarching content and happiness they experience with their daily discourse with art, music, friends and family. This, in turn, shaped how MMC, as a business, must facilitate a constant, 24 hour avenue for conversation, art development and interaction for it to be an attractive place for musicians to want to be a part of.

“Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than a master of one”

You need more than one set approach. Innovation isn’t a one time process that leads to the perfect business model. It is constantly evolving, taking new shape as a result of the environment it is placed into. Innovation moulds itself to the dynamism of the current political and economic climate and so do your clients and beneficiaries, so here are three systems you can incorporate into any strategy;

  • Feedback loops; place your services and products through a monthly review process
  • Thematic maps; research your clientele and build a visual understanding of their changing needs and desires
  • Digital data tracking; information is power and power is priceless

Who would’ve thought that a key ingredient to stabilising the most volatile region on earth would be the digitalization of the Malian music industry?

Instead of standing by as culture and life is systematically wiped out and another migration crisis unfolds, we hope to spread the unique sounds of Mali to the world, foster opportunity for the musicians of Mali and create new forms of art, music and expression in a globalized world.

We are a long way away from revitalising the cultural heart of Africa that is Mali back to its rightful glory. But what better way to start than by creating a safe community that promotes expression, freedom and sound.

Link to Gofundme fundraiser the MMC team have organized to kickstart the digital platform Mali Music Collective:


  • Instagram — @malimusiccenter


  1. Is Mansa Musa the richest man who ever lived? — Naima Mahmoud
  2. Libya: Nato steps up air strikes on Tripoli
  3. Foreign military forces in Mali
  4. Welsh, in Primo, N. (2013). No Music in Timbuktu: A Brief Analysis of the Conflict in Mali and Al Qaeda’s Rebirth. Pepperdine Policy Review
  5. Bebey, F. (1999). African music: A people’s art. Chicago Review Press
  6. Brown, S., & Volgsten, U. (Eds.). (2005). Music and manipulation: On the social uses and social control of music. Berghahn Books.
  7. Morgan, A. (2013). Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali.
  8. Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté — Debe live at Bozar
  9. Tinariwen (+IO:I) — Sastanàqqàm
  10. Tamikrest — Aratan N Tinariwen
  11. Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet — Eh Ya Ye (Official Music Video)
  12. Songhoy Blues: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert
  13. Disclosure, Fatoumata Diawara — Douha (Mali Mali)
  14. Disclosure — Ultimatum (Audio) ft. Fatoumata Diawara

Written by: Hima Abed

Hima is an Austrian-Egyptian entrepreneur, holding two degrees from the London School of Economics (LSE); BSc in International Relations and an MSc in Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Having worked at consultancies like Deloitte and start-ups in Berlin and London, he is now spending most of his time building Mali Music Collective for Malian artists. Hima also runs a private fund in Namibia, Hima Holdings, that specializes in public sector development projects in the water and energy sectors. He resides in Vienna, Austria, where he is pursuing a PhD in Social Policy.

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