Why the home of African music needs a new anthem

Malian musicians in Timbuktu

Mali – if you haven’t read yet – is about the world’s most tumultuous country right now. Over the last year, the army led a coup; the nomadic Tuareg people started a rebellion, took over much of north and renamed it Azawad; then a few hundred Islamic extremists took over from the Tuaregs, banned music and tried to enforce Sharia law. Now the French have gone in to try and sort it all out.

Whatever happens next, Mali’s government is going to have to do a lot of nation rebuilding. One thing that surprisingly could help that task is if the country changed its national anthem, which is sounding increasingly at odds with reality.

‘Le Mali’ is one long plea for unity. “At your call, Mali…we will all be united – one people, one struggle, one faith,” it says. It’s not just talking about Mali either. “For Africa and for you…our fight shall be for unity,” goes the chorus.

The song was written in 1962 when Mali was led by a Socialist government that wanted as many of France’s former colonies as possible to be one. That explains why the anthem was enthusiastically sung back then. But today? I expect anyone who sings it, does so holding back a laugh.

It’s not just the political situation that makes me think there needs to be a change. Mali’s a country dominated by music, with an incredible history of griots, musicians who go from town to town and bar to bar telling the country’s stories. It’s the sort of culture that makes you think the anthem should change every year, not every few hundred.

The BBC’s great From Our Own Correspondent radio programme recently had a piece on one of Mali’s most famous griots, Nahawa Doumbia (go here and jump to 5:20 to listen). It’s a sad few minutes, featuring a depressed Nahawa refusing to talk about the country’s problems. The presenter, Celeste Hicks, concludes with this line: “As a griot, Nahawa’s the one who’ll have to record this whole sorry episode to pass down to the next generation.” Celeste makes it sound like an awful task, but I expect the song Nahawa does end up writing will be far more honest than the anthem is.

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