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‘Singing is universal right:’ exiled Mali musician

Malian singer Fadimata Walett Oumar (C) performs (© 2009 AFP)

When Malian singer Fadimata Walett Oumar performed at the Timbuktu desert festival in January she had no idea that within two weeks unrest would force her into exile and lead to an Islamist takeover.

“We have been chased from our country… But despite the fact that they want to block our music, it has already reached the outside world,” she told AFP, speaking at Taragalte, another desert music festival in the Moroccan Sahara.

The group she heads, Tartit, formed in 1995 and made up of 10 women from Mali’s Timbuktu region, has performed worldwide, including in the United States and Canada, Brazil, Europe and East Asia, and plays the traditional music of the Tuareg people.

They were one of the main acts at the Morocco festival, which took place at the weekend among the rolling sand dunes of the African desert, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Algerian border, and paid special tribute to Timbuktu.

“We are really happy and proud to be here. It is very uplifting. But it also makes me sad, because I am nostalgic for my village, my family and my life,” said Fadimata.

After performing at the Timbuktu festival in January, the Tartit group travelled to Bamako, but by early the following month the women had fled the country, some travelling to Burkina Faso and others to Mauritania.

They left when anti-Tuareg demonstrations erupted in the capital, in the first wave of unrest that resulted in a military coup in March and an all-out rebellion in the north, which eventually fell into the hands of Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists.

A cousin of Fadimata’s husband was killed in the ethnic violence that swept Bamako, where she said shops and houses were looted and burned.

“We want all the Malian people to see each other as Malians, that we can live together, taking into account our cultural differences… as we have lived for centuries,” she said.

For Fadimata, like so many others, the strict imposition of Islamic sharia, which has seen music banned, women forced to veil and sufi shrines destroyed, is a terrible betrayal of Malian culture.

“Our culture is a very musical culture, a culture of joy, not a culture of being shut up in the house,” she said.

“Singing is a universal right. For the Tuareg, it is like a therapy. In the evening we get together and sing. There is nothing else for us,” she added.

Since fleeing Mali, Tartit has also performed in Poland and Mauritania, but the women are geographically divided, and the prospects of returning to their hometown any time soon, let alone performing their, appear slim.

The organisers announced last month that Timbuktu’s desert festival will take place next year in Burkina Faso, where Fadimata now lives. “We are scattered now between Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mali,” she said.

Signature : Simon Martelli M'HAMID, Morocco (AFP)

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