On Thursday, March 21, junior officers in the Malian army staged a coup d'etat in the West African nation's capital city of Bamako, current home of blues-informed Songhaï folk singer (and Thrill Jockey recording artist) Sidi Touré. In the days since, desert rebels have seized cities in Mali's Saharan north (including ancient trading outpost Timbuktu and Touré's home city of Gao) and proclaimed independence for what they call the state of Azawad, a geopolitical maneuver that could potentially separate Touré from his family and one that hurls his forthcoming full-length, Koïma, into stark relief. We sent along a series of written questions to Bamako via his publicist. Here's how he responded:
Very generally, what have you seen in the past few days at home in Bamako? What are you feeling?
For a few days, we've been witnessing a putsch, a coup d'etat. A coup d'etat is never a good thing for a country; we spent more than 20 years building democracy, but what I wish for is peace and forgiveness for a thriving Mali. Politics is for the politicians, art for the artists.
Have you been able to maintain contact with your family since the revolt in the north? How are they? What kind of changes have they experience in Gao?
For the time being, I'm okay and my family is all right in Gao. Well, my family is all right, I'm not in contact directly but one of my brothers who lives in the South is. Well, when I say "all right"...when you know what happens there, people's bodies and minds being wounded, hospitals and markets closing, water shortages...Everything is going wrong there, Sharia law is close to be applied, people are in a desperate situation, it is anarchy in all the three regions of the North: Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao. It's impossible to remain indifferent, there is a risk of a serious crisis.
With Gao having been seized by rebels and included in the newly proclaimed independent state of Azawad, how does that new divide resonate amongst your family? How do you feel about it?
This is a problem for me. People from the rebellion, we grew up together....Azawad is a region from Mali. On my birth certificate it's written "born in Gao, Republic of Mali," and for the rebels it's the same thing. Asking for independence, but still, it's too much. I hope they will come to their senses and sit down at the negotiating table for the good of everybody. We've lived together from time immemorial, as I said, every Songhaï family is linked to a Tuareg family, by marriage for example. We are so mixed, something like this should not have happened!
How much, if it at all, would you say the events of the past few weeks in the capital city or even up north where Tuareg rebels have begun seizing cities, alter the context/place from which Koïma is coming? Does it take on new meaning?
Indeed, I sing of exodus, reconciliation, and peace. My last song (on Koïma) talks about peace. If you are white, even white as snow, maybe you were breast-fed or adopted by a black woman. If you are black, even black as coal, maybe you were breast-fed or adopted by a white woman. We have to live together. For all the people who have lived together from time immemorial, we can only make a plea and say "we are all the same." I hope I can record it to make it spread, like goodwill all around. I want all the artists from the North, every artists from Mali, to participate in order to make peace come back for everyone, because we need it so much. No development is possible without peace! The message is there, the only message is peace, a message for our country, for Africa and for the world!
Lyrically, portions of Koïma deal with "city dilemmas." Having perhaps witnessed or read about similar political tumult in other West African countries, what changes can do you anticipate as a writer and artist living in Mali? Do you feel compelled to write? Do you feel compelled to relocate? What's your first impulse?
It's true we saw this throughout west Africa, Niger, Ivory Coast, and in the rest of Africa too. Only dialogue can change this. People have to sit together to talk, only this will lead to a result. But people have to want to dialogue. Of course, it gives me inspiration because everything gives me inspiration, when I'm angry, happy, when I sleep, when I wake up. I will not leave Mali. You know, that's what i sing in "Ishi Tanmaha": No matter what you will find in another country, it will never be as good as in your own. I like to travel. I'm happy to go back to the USA, I'd like to go back to Europe, but my aim is to build something here. I can have one of my feet on the other side, in Europe or in the U.S., and the other one in Mali, but I don't want to have both there, I've got relatives and a family which relies on me.
You're renowned for wedding traditional Malian sounds to Western influences like American blues and rock, a blend some might describe as "modern." How would you say that the modern is reflected in your songwriting, specifically in the way it communicates transitions that come as a result of Bamako's breathtaking growth rate?
What is modernization? Personally, I don't know. I'm only working on improving songs, making them more powerful, less monotonous. I structure my songs differently than traditional songs. Maybe this is what we call modernization, perhaps this is why European or American people can enjoy my music. But music has no border, no color. We can't stop it, music is what touches your soul. We have to be fighters, to say when things go right, when thing go wrong, especially when they go wrong. We have to sing to find solutions. We have a role, a duty to increase public awareness. I can only sing that Mali is a multiracial country, that we have to be united and reconciled, and we must forgive each other for a strong and prosperous Mali.
How do you feel about the notion of Malian identity? Your musical traditions hail from one particular region of the country — how would you say that the notion of "What is distinctively Malian" is, or can be, expressed in your music? What does it compel you to express?
The link between Malians is very strong, I thank my ancestor to create the sinankunya, pleasant cousinship (or joking relationship), it protects us from a lot of things. My "cousins" are the Keita, the Coulibaly, the Diarra, and vice-versa. If you quarrel with someone, one only has to claim kinship and he can make fun of you: "Hey you, little Touré!" and so everything calms down and water goes back to the river. It's golden! We are the children of greats kings who built Mali, who made it glorious thanks to the Mali, Ghana, Songhai Empires. We say, "If your father is drowning, you must catch him. If you can't, at the least catch his boubou" (formal attire, often passed down from father to son). Songhai culture is not only part of Malian culture, but also exists in Niger, Benin, Nigeria. For example, we share the same language with Niger; the differences are negligible between Songhai and Zarma. They understand what I sing. At the same time, it's a regional and national border and cross-border region. This is not a problem nor contradictory.
You were planning on touring touring North America in a few weeks. What sort of complications will the political situation in Mali create for you when attempting to enter the United States? Have there already been issues?
I don't know. It depends on a lot of things that are out of my control. This is politics. But I'm optimistic, if we get out of Mali, it's in order to defend its colors and sing its praise abroad.