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Why the Cancelling of Timbuktu's Music Festival This Weekend Was Significant

23/11/2015 16:32 GMT | Updated 23/11/2016 10:12 GMT

The call came this morning from my friend in Timbuktu. This weekend's music festival, the largest in the city since music was banned in 2012, has been cancelled.

Late last night Mali's president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (known as I.B.K.), announced a ten-day state of emergency following an attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako where, it is reported, twenty-seven people died. In just one day Mali has gone from a country moving towards "normality" to a place more akin to three years ago, when the entire north of the country was under siege from Islamic terrorists.

In 2012, a group of separatists from northern Mali rose up and declared a new state, which they called Azawad. Their army was called the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad). Frustrated with decades of what they saw as marginalisation and lack of representation in the government, they had finally decided to make some bold choices. There had been uprisings in the north before, but each skirmish was followed by a hurried peace agreement and things eventually settled down. This time was different.

For some years extremist groups had been living and working in northern Mali, gaining trust amongst the locals, and therefore, gaining potential followers. The MNLA's uprising was too good an opportunity to pass up. Ansar Dine (Defenders of the faith), one of the most influential extremist groups in the region signed an agreement to help the MNLA. The extremist groups were well organised, had experience, kit and money. I imagine that they were pretty convincing. But I think we can all guess what happened next.

Following a coup in the south (military leaders ousted then President Amadou Toumani Tourè for failing to tackle the uprising effectively), Ansar Dine, MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) and AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) side-lined the MNLA and took the north of Mali for themselves.

They banned football, cigarettes, free movement for women and, crucially for Mali, made a special attack on the country's musicians.

It's hard not to fall into clichéd terms when describing how important music is in Mali: a way of life, the heartbeat of the nation, the soul of the people. In fact those words don't do Mali's music scene justice. I went to Cuba once and was astounded by how integral music was to the culture there. But it doesn't compare to Mali, and the importance that music has in every day life there.

And then, one day, it was banned. Instruments were being systematically burned. Radio stations were razed. Musicians were literally hunted down and told that if they played music they would "get hurt".

Like most people, I first learned about the music ban through newspaper headlines. I had worked in West Africa for a while, though had never visited Mali. Coincidentally, I was at that moment making plans to go to Timbuktu after a friend of mine told me she was moving to Mali for her husband's job. So it was on my mind.

When I read that music had been banned it seemed like a suspension of the rules for modern day life. A tragic, but peculiar occurrence. I wasn't working on anything at the time, so I decided to get on a plane and go. Two years later I had made a feature length documentary, They Will Have to Kill Us First, following what I will always consider one of the most extraordinary musical stories in history.

The cancelling of Timbuktu's music festival this weekend is significant.

In the past couple of weeks I've been getting emails about music making a return - something Mali has been desperately waiting for. I heard through my friend and colleague Andy Morgan that Manny Ansar, the director of The Festival in the Desert, possibly the most remote and awesome of all the festivals, seemed hopeful of bringing it back to Mali.

I heard about a new festival that was going to be launched in Bamako that sounded incredible. I heard that Khaira Arby, the "nightingale of the north" and one of the main characters in my film, was going to perform this weekend at a two day concert in the city centre in Timbuktu supported by UNESCO. It all sounded extremely positive, but I hate to say that, to me, it sounded a little too good to be true.

A couple of days later, on Friday November 20th, a group of armed men from a new, spin-off extremist group, Al-Mourabitoun (The Sentinels), stormed an upscale hotel in Bamako's most upscale district and took 170 people hostage. It's not like these things haven't happened in Mali before. They have. But in the wake of the attacks in Paris, Beirut and Egypt, the world took notice. My mother in a small town in New England emailed to say it was even on their local news.

Almost immediately, my inbox was flooded with people wanting to know if Songhoy Blues were OK.

Songhoy Blues, who are also main characters in my film, are without doubt the one of the most exciting new bands on the indie rock scene here in the UK. I'm biased of course, but it's definitely the case. Four gorgeous boys, Oumar, Aliou, Garba and Nat, with huge musical talent, off-the-charts intelligence, and an electric determination that inspires everyone who hears them speak.

Another extraordinary thing about this band is that they wouldn't have even existed if music hadn't been banned in Mali.

Oumar and Aliou are from Gao, and Garba is from Timbuktu. All three of them fled their hometowns during the occupation and met up in Bamako as exiles. They were frustrated, but not remotely depressed. They were filled with the kind of energy that I've often seen in creative people living in conflict zones. They were compelled to discharge, to create, to emit. What was born when they got together is properly incredible. And everyone who has seen the film, or heard their music, has fallen in love with them.

My gut reaction to people's questions was to write: "It's OK, they are safe in Paris." But I had to stop myself, because we all know that's not true. Not anymore. The Bataclan, the music venue that was attacked on Friday 13th, is exactly the size of venue Songhoy Blues are getting booked into these days.

We shared a few group Facebook messages yesterday. Oumar (bassist) sent crying faces emoticons and Garba (guitarist) shared my cathartic love of using expletives to describe the attackers, but Aliou was silent. I can only imagine what it must feel like to have these incidents of terror seemingly following you across the globe. But on the other hand, Aliou has said before that he has gotten used to this kind of thing. Songhoy Blues' concert at Le Hangar in a suburb of Paris last night, the night of the attack in Mali, went ahead as planned. I wish I could have been there.

There's no doubt that the world has changed over the past year or two. Attacks from extremist groups are much more commonplace. And we are all asking ourselves the same question: What do extremists of any kind, actually want?

They want to exert control over the way we live our lives. They want to negate our right to make our own choices about how we live. They want to force us to accept the ideology they have chosen for us. And they do this by making us fearful of asserting our own values. Afraid of the consequences of making free choices.

Music is one of ways in which we express a common identity and transmit it thorough our culture, but it is also one of the primary means by which we express alternative choices, dissent and difference - think about the Sex Pistols, Public Enemy, and, yes, Eagles of Death Metal.

This is why music was a target in Mali during the jihadi invasion of 2012. That is why it was a target in Taliban-led Afghanistan, that is why North Korea conducts house-to-house searches looking for foreign tapes and CDs (power hungry people don't always need religion as an excuse). And that is why it was a target in Paris alongside two other extremist no-nos: football and the cigarettes and alcohol of Parisien café culture.

I am disheartened that the concerts this weekend in Timbuktu have been cancelled. It would have been an act of enormous courage from all involved.

The Grande Dame of Malian Music, Khaira Arby, texted me yesterday, after the hotel siege in Bamako, but before the concerts had been cancelled, to say that she was really happy and pleased to be in Timbuktu - in her home - and to perform an "act of peace". She said that she was deeply upset over that morning's attack and - this was the extraordinary bit - "that I want to stand with all the other countries that are victims of terrorism to wage war on the bandits who made us suffer."

But when Khaira talks of waging war, she doesn't mean further violence and bloodshed - she means a war of ideas and culture that unite the world. I think more than ever we need to take our cues from these great musicians, who resist these horrific attacks with every molecule in their bodies. They are wilfully defiant, but peacefully so.

Johanna Schwartz is an award winning documentary filmmaker. Her debut feature length documentary on musicians in Mali's conflict, They Will Have To Kill Us First, premiered at SXSW and The BFI London Film Festival. It is released in U.K. cinemas in Autumn 2015 and U.S. cinemas in Spring 2016. Together with Index on Censorship, the film team has launched the Music In Exile Fund which will support persecuted musicians across the globe.