West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library

Passing through London on our way back from the David Jones show in Chichester, I decided to take a look at the current exhibition at the British Library: West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. It’s an ambitious survey of literature, art and music from the great African empires of the Middle Ages to expressions of rapid cultural and political change across West Africa in recent decades. Continue reading “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library”

Timbuktu: rescuing books that ‘bear the human soul’

Timbuktu: rescuing books that ‘bear the human soul’

A Quran from the 12th century in Timbuktu

A 12th century Quran: one of the manuscripts that comprise Timbuktu’s heritage

There is the bravery of those who save other humans from certain death (this week, for example, Nicholas Winton, the man who rescued 669 children – mostly Jewish – from almost certain death in the Nazi concentration camps, celebrated his 105th birthday).  And then there is the bravery of those who, at great personal risk to themselves, save irreplaceable books or other cultural treasures from being destroyed by armed forces driven by ideologies which have no interest in freedom of expression.

Such is the story, told in today’s Guardian, of the brave Malians who smuggled hundreds of thousands of ancient books and manuscripts out of Timbuktu after the city had fallen to Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), the jihadist affiliate of al-Qaida in the civil war two years ago.

Guardian international editor Charlie English describes the terror that came to Timbuktu in late 2012:

It was a time of devastation in northern Mali: first the rebels pillaged the town, then the jihadis imposed a brutal form of sharia law on the population. Women were beaten for walking in the company of men. Music, a vibrant part of Malian culture that has been exported all over the world, was banned. Suspected thieves had their hands or feet chopped off after summary trials.

The largely moderate Muslims of Timbuktu were terrified. “When [the rebels] entered the city, people said if you were an artist they would cut out your tongue, because they hate music and want to ban it,” Bintu Dara, a singer, tells me in the Malian capital, Bamako. “One of my cousins was beaten in front of me, given 100 lashes from the jihadis,” she says. “My drum player was caught and put in jail. One of my relatives’ sons was the first guy to have his hand cut off.” Dara fled soon after, along with an estimated two-thirds of Timbuktu’s citizens.

Timbuktu is a Unesco-listed world heritage site, the cultural and spiritual capital of sub-Saharan Africa.  Many cultural artefacts  were destroyed or damaged during the first week of the occupation –  the shrines of Sufi saints were hacked to pieces, priceless medieval manuscripts were burnt.  It was then that Abdel Haïdara and a group of brave and dedicated assistants decided to act.

Haïdara manages the largest private library in the city, a library he can trace back to a 16th-century ancestor.  He also runs an organisation, Savama-DCI, that represents other private manuscript collections. Charlie English recounts the dramatic and inspiring story of how Haïdara and his assistants succeeded in saving almost 400,000 manuscripts, moved in thousands of lockers, each of which was the size of a small trunk.

Abdel Kader Haïdara with ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu packed into metal trunks

Abdel Kader Haïdara with ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu packed into metal trunks

Timbuktu now may be a sleepy place threatened not just by war but also by the encroaching sands of the Sahara – but as Charlie English recounts, from the early 14th to late 16th centuries Timbuktu was famous for its wealth and as a centre for Islamic teaching:

The Encyclopedia Britannica states that by 1450 Timbuktu had a population of 100,000, a quarter of whom were students. Even if these figures are wildly exaggerated, Timbuktu was a thriving centre of learning, and manuscripts were highly prized: the traveller Leo Africanus, who visited in 1510, found books sold for more money than any other merchandise in the city’s market.

Books reached Timbuktu by caravan from Fez and Cairo, Tripoli and Córdoba, and what the scholars couldn’t afford, they would copy. Other documents were written in Timbuktu. The vast libraries that resulted included every subject: astronomy and medicine, law, theology, grammar and proverbs. There were biographical dictionaries, diaries, letters between rulers and subjects; legal opinions on slavery, coinage, marriage and divorce; the lives of Muslims, Jews and Christians; there were histories and poetry.

In his Description of Africa, published in 1550, the traveller Leo Africanus marvelled that in the bustling markets of Timbuktu, under the towers of its majestic mosques, the richest traders were booksellers.

A damaged Timbuktu manuscript saved during the rescue operation

A damaged Timbuktu manuscript saved during the rescue operation

I recall seeing, several years ago, a BBC 4 documentary in which Aminatta Forna told the story of the lost libraries of Timbuktu and their long-hidden legacy of hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscript.  She spoke, too, of Timbuktu’s university, founded around the same time as Oxford, and of the legacy of learning preserved in the manuscripts of Timbuktu – the classical Greek heritage copied and preserved in the middle ages, the history and laws of Mali and Songhai, chronicles of the families of Timbuktu, the poetry and stories of north Africa.  Yet when European empires scrambled for Africa in the 19th century, Africans were regarded as primitive illiterates, with no history or literature.

The whole film can be seen on YouTube:

Reading the Guardian’s account of how the manuscripts of Timbuktu were saved brought to mind a trio of posts in the archive of this blog.  In The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story, I wrote of another documentary shown on BBC TV in 2012 that told the story of how over 10,000 manuscripts and rare books belonging to the Gazi Husrev Beg library were saved during the siege of Sarajevo. That magnificent film can also be seen on YouTube:

In An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street: a hymn to the book and the word, I wrote of seeing, in Manchester’s John Rylands Library, the project conceived by poet Beau Beausoleil and artist Sarah Bodman to ‘re-assemble’ the ‘inventory’ of reading material that was lost when a car bomb exploded in al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad, on 5 March 2007 – an attack in which more than 30 people died and many more wounded.

In the third post I discussed Melvyn Bragg’s week-long In Our Time special, The Written World, broadcast over one week on BBC Radio 4.  Bragg’s thesis was that writing was the greatest human invention, and the focus of the series was the technology for recording words – tablets, manuscripts and books, each of which in some way represented a turning point in the history of ideas.

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

– Emily Dickinson

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Mali: the music cries out

Mali: the music cries out

Oumou Sangare

Oumou Sangare

I’ve had it mind on several occasions in the past 12 months to write something about my love for the music of Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries that for two decades had been held up as a model of democratic progress in sub-Saharan Africa until last January when an armed insurgency resulted in Islamist forces gaining control of vast swathes of the north of the country, including the ancient cultural centre of Timbuktu.  Earlier this week, before the French military intervention, Mali appeared to be on the brink of dissolution as Islamist forces pushed south towards the capital Bamako.

This morning, The Guardian has an article by Robin Denselow (Mali music ban by Islamists ‘crushing culture to impose rule’) that will have been read with interest – and dread – by anyone who has been energised and enthralled by the astonishing cavalcade of wonderful musicians who have emerged from this land. Denselow begins by observing:

Nowhere does music have a greater social and political importance than in the vast desert state of Mali. It is shocking, therefore, that it has been banned across much of the two-thirds of Mali currently controlled by Islamic rebel groups.

He goes on to summarize the global impact of Mali’s musicians:

Malian musicians have become household names in the west. The list is remarkable, from the late Ali Farka Touré to the soulful Salif Keita, from Toumani Diabaté, the world’s finest exponent of the kora, to the bravely experimental Rokia Traoré. Then there’s the rousing desert blues of Tinariwen, who have performed alongside the Rolling Stones.

There is the passionate social commentary of Oumou Sangaré, and the rousing, commercially successful African pop fusion of Amadou & Mariam.

These musicians, with varied, distinctive styles, have educated western audiences about Africa and their country’s ancient civilisation, and the way in which traditional families of musicians, the griots, had acted as advisers to the rulers and guardians of the country’s history, and kept alive an oral tradition for generation after generation.

And yet, Denselow writes, ‘the Islamic rebel groups are trying to wipe out this ancient culture’ – and in the process have forced Malian musicians to examine the role they should now play.  He quotes Manny Ansar, director of Mali’s celebrated Festival in the Desert, at a recent censorship conference in Oslo as stating that the Islamic militias are banning music in order ‘to impose their authority, so there’s nothing to threaten them’. ‘They are attacking the traditional chiefs and musicians. And they’re using concepts of Islam that are 14 centuries old.’  Young people have been stopped from listening to music and families have had their televisions smashed for watching music shows, but music was still being played underground, Ansar said.

Denselow reports that Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara has just finished a new song and video, Peace, which will be released in Bamako on Thursday. The aim was to promote peace and ‘show that … we want one Mali’.  Outside Mali, other musicians are involved in an international campaign to promote the culture of their battered country. Rokia Traoré, arguably the most adventurous female singer in Africa, is currently on tour in Australia. She explains: “I can just keep going and doing the best in my work, to try to make people think good things about Mali and see good things from Mali.”

So, here are some good things from Mali, beginning with a track from one of the first Malian albums I bought, Salif Keita’s Soro from 1987, and followed by a song from the golden era of the state-subsidised bands of the 1970s, ‘Mandjou’ by by Les Ambassadeurs, also featuring a young Salif Keita:

Last, one of my favourite pieces of music of any description: ‘Djorolen’ sung by Oumou Sangare.  Sangare is the voice of feminism in West Africa. In a region where polygamy is the norm, and women are often viewed as the property of their husbands, Sangare’s music has come to symbolize the struggle against gender imbalance. In addition to their social content, Sangare’s songs are full of the joy and spirit that the traditional rhythms of Mali have been communicating for generations. The lyrics translate in part:

The worried songbird,
Cries out in the forest,
The worried songbird,
Her thoughts go far away,
The worried songbird,
cries out in the forest,
The worried songbird,
Her thoughts go far away,
For those of us who have no father,
Her thoughts go out to them.

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