The Timbuktu Renaissance: Harnessing Music, Heritage and Culture to Save Mali

“They want to ban our music….they will have to kill us first.”
Fadimata Walet Oumar

Malian musician Fadimata Walet Oumar uttered these fighting words after the extremist invasion and occupation of northern Mali in the spring of 2012. She works with others in the Timbuktu Renaissance (TR) Action Group at the 2014 U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha to develop a strategy to bring music back to Timbuktu after jihadists forced hundreds of thousands of civilians, including musicians, artists and scholars into exile.

A revival and strengthening of Mali’s incredibly rich arts and culture has untapped potential to catalyze peace and unity between north and south Mali, and rekindle economic growth, investment and tourism. The TR strategy—to promote inclusion, reconciliation, and sustainable development in Mali through a revival of its culture and heritage—has broader implications for post-conflict reconstruction and for understanding Islam in its global diversity.

Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who leads the distinguished Malian delegation of Ministers, artists, scholars and musicians to the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, recognizes the importance of culture in reconciling and re-unifying north and south Mali. At a concert of Malian music held during the U.N. General Assembly in September 2013, the president spoke of Timbuktu’s symbolic and historical importance as a major center of Islamic learning, and pledged to attend the Festival Au Désert when it returns to its home in Timbuktu—projected for winter 2014/2015.

When extremists overran northern Mali, they targeted Mali’s culture, notably music, including the world-renowned Festival Au Desert, as well as priceless manuscripts that document Timbuktu’s position as the center of Islamic civilization in Africa during the Renaissance period. This was no accident.

Culture provides the foundation of identity, a bulwark against fundamentalism and the authoritarianism of the rigid Sharia law imposed by the invaders. It is no wonder that extremists try to silence and/or destroy icons of history and culture—from the Buddhas of Bamiyan, to the art galleries in Tunis, to the music, manuscripts and world heritage sites of Timbuktu.

The invaders attempted to erase Mali’s culture: silence her griots—the musical internet for much of Mali, bearing news and history through their songs; destroy her unique mud-brick shrines and UNESCO World Heritage sites which have weathered the desert for over five hundred years; and burn her manuscripts, priceless repositories of knowledge from Timbuktu’s Golden Age. They failed. French forces expelled them; Malians outwitted them, continuing to blend music behind closed doors, and in exile in neighboring countries. Under the direction of the courageous scholar, Abdel Kader Haidara, a member of the Timbuktu Renaissance Action Group, they spirited thousands of manuscripts to safety in a daring operation of transporting hundreds of cases on donkey-back.

Although a UNESCO World Heritage site, today’s Timbuktu is a far cry from the legendary “city of gold,” where scholars gathered and debated much as did their 15th century contemporaries in Florence or Urbino. Notwithstanding the challenges of desertification, climate change, endemic poverty and terrorism, the Timbuktu Renaissance Action Group sees the potential for countering extremism and energizing Timbuktu’s dormant economy by reviving Timbuktu’s multi-faceted culture, and spreading the word about it globally.

Specifically, the Timbuktu Renaissance incorporates several facets: music festivals and their social media broadcast; documentary film and compilation record album releases; the preservation and exhibition of the manuscripts; and the development of a plan for a cultural center in Timbuktu to house and exhibit them, and to showcase indigenous music.

A key topic of discussion for the Timbuktu Renaissance Action Group in Doha will be the return of the Festival Au Désert, a magnet for musicians and music lovers all over the world, to Timbuktu. Over the past year and a half, the Festival Au Désert has been touring outside Mali under the moniker Festival in Exile under the leadership of Action Group Co-convener and Festival Au Désert Founder Manny Ali Ansar.

Precisely because music is the language and lifeblood of Mali, its return to Timbuktu has significance far beyond simply holding a concert. The return of the Festival Au Désert to Timbuktu has enormous symbolic importance for the re-unification of the country, and for combatting the austere extremism of the foreign invaders who banned music.

The other key component of the Timbuktu Renaissance involves restoring and exhibiting the manuscripts, and establishing a permanent cultural center in Timbuktu to house and display these pillars of culture. These priceless, but relatively unknown objects, dating from the 14th century onwards document the advanced scientific knowledge, humanism, tolerance and advocacy for women’s rights that made Timbuktu the center of knowledge for much of the Islamic world, and beyond. Although safe from terrorists in Bamako, the manuscripts are vulnerable to the humid climate, and are suffering damage to their fragile condition.

Introducing Timbuktu’s manuscripts to the world through a traveling exhibition not only would shed light on this symbolic city, but also would call into question stereotypes of Islamic traditions as narrow and intolerant. Bringing this vast storehouse of knowledge to light, therefore, has both local significance for Mali’s sense of identity and unity, and global importance for understanding Islamic contributions to thought.

Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country
Of the white men, but the word of God and the treasures of
Wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu.
—West African proverb

At its prime, during the period of the Italian Renaissance, Timbuktu was more advanced in scientific knowledge than anywhere in the western world, and as progressive in culture, humanism, tolerance and inclusiveness. Ultimately, spreading knowledge about the extraordinary accomplishments of this center of Islamic learning and culture has the potential to re-define prevailing ideas about Islam and about Africa.