"Even leaders and people who are at the center of conflicts can be touched by the message brought by music," Baba Salah tells me. I was inquiring about whether he believed that musicians could play a role in bringing peace to the tense political situation unfolding in his native Mali in West Africa. Last year a group of Islamic militants took control of three major cities in the country's north region, establishing strict enforcement of Islamic law and issuing a ban on all non-Islamic music - - a huge blow for a nation where music is a major international export.
"I really felt for the musicians who were in the North at that time," Salah says. "For a musician in Mali, music is the only way they have to earn a living and take care of their families. Many of them had to come south and of course we had to help them and share in their suffering. It is not easy now in the South either. As a result of the coup d'état and the war, business and investment has slowed, but we do what we can to support them because they have nowhere else to turn."
Salah says the situation is improving, though, "with the intervention of the French, our African neighbors, and the international community, many of the Islamists have scattered." But he tells me there's still work to do. "We need a national reconciliation. The problem started with a particular group of Tuareg that created an alliance with the Jihadists. The population needs to understand that it was not all the Tuareg that revolted. The authorities need to educate the population so they do not confuse the rebels with the larger Tuareg and Arab communities."
This all happened at a time when Salah was preparing for his first major international release. But he isn't letting the crisis slow him down - - his new LP, Dangay was released in January. For Salah, making music isn't a choice. "There are things that we don't consciously decide to do. Music is my passion. It's something that comes from inside of me. It's stronger than me," he says.
It's a call Salah felt early in his life. "No one in my family was a musician; it was a gift. As a child I made my first drum set with cans and old hubcaps," he remembers. "Later, I became very interested in the guitar. A big influence for me on the guitar was Douma Albarka Maiga. I saw him play and was very impressed. It was then that I decided to play guitar. But I could not approach him because he was grand, and I was just a child. I made my own guitar with wood, and used brake cables for strings and nails as tuning pegs."
Salah would eventually master the instrument. In fact, last year Vanity Fair magazine dubbed Salah "the Jimi Hendrix of Africa." It's an apt comparison considering Malian music's close relationship with American blues. I asked Salah about that connection. "The similarity is natural because we sing about our problems," he says. "Our country is dry and there isn't much rain. It's a difficult environment, and we sing a lot about our pain and troubles. In a situation and environment like this you can't just sing about partying and fun. In this kind of environment our songs are deep and melancholic. The enslaved Africans in the United States, because of their situation, had to express their suffering, too. This is the blues."
But Salah isn't just singing the blues. "I'm aware of what music can contribute to humanity," he tells me. "My greatest goal is to bring to the attention of Africans that we have a lot to do. I want to bring a consciousness to my brothers and sisters in Africa about the things that concern us. But not just Africa, what's happening in Syria for example, and what happened in Iraq, it's hard to fathom. I just can't believe that every day we have all these tragic deaths just because of power and greed."
That's a tall order, but Salah says he's confident in the role his music can play in reshaping society. "The music gets people's attention. When Malians listen to music, they are relaxed, and they are concentrated on the message. In Mali, music is probably the best way for this message to be transmitted."
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection features classics and new releases from Mali.
1. Rail Band - Duga (Bambara Version)
2. Sorry Bamba - Boro
3. Ali Farka Touré - Ali's Here
4. Baba Salah - Chérie
5. Tinariwen - Chatma
6. Terakaft - Imgharen Win Ibda
7. Amadou & Mariam - Bagnale
8. Toumani Diabaté - Jarabi
9. Oumou Sangaré - Iyo Djeli
10. Fatoumata Diawara - Bissa
11. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba - Ne Me Fatigue Pas
12. Amadou & Mariam - Dougou Badia (feat. Santigold)
13. Rokia Traoré - Beautiful Africa
14. Tinariwen - Oualahila Ar Tesninam
15. Issa Bagayogo - Gnangran
16. Vieux Farka Touré - Chérie Le
17. Tamikrest - Aicha
18. Bombino - Kammou Taliat
19. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba - Tineni
20. Amadou & Mariam - Sabali