When Al-Qaeda-linked militants occupied Timbuktu, imposing strict Sharia law just weeks after Bono had performed alongside Mali’s greatest musicians at the Festival Au Désert, founding Director of the legendary Festival and Mali’s leading impresario Manny Ansar wondered, what will become of the music? The Jihadists had announced a ban on music, unthinkable in Timbuktu, where blues and rock 'n roll have roots and where music is a lifeblood.
Ansar teamed up with Chris Shields, an American music producer who had made the pilgrimage to the Festival Au Désert in Timbuktu, as well as Malian social entrepreneur Salif Romano Niang, and Georgetown Professor of Diplomacy and former Ambassador Cynthia Schneider to found the Timbuktu Renaissance (TR) with the goal of supporting Timbuktu’s and Mali’s recovery from conflict through a focus on Mali’s calling card to the world: her culture.
The Timbuktu Renaissance launched in June 2014 at the Brookings Institution’s US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar. Malian artists, scholars, and cultural leaders such as Vieux Farka Touré and Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara, came together with government leaders, including the newly elected President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita and members of his Cabinet, and American counterparts to map out a strategy to harness the power of Mali’s music and her rich historical heritage to help Timbuktu rebuild its economy and the harmonious plurality for which it is known.
Timbuktu Renaissance co-directors with Malian cultural and government leaders at the U.S. Islamic World Forum in Doha, June 2014.
One of the first steps was to visit Timbuktu to consult with civic and cultural leaders. The delegation included Mali’s Minister of Culture as well as the director of Google Arts & Culture, Amit Sood.
Timbuktu Renaissance co-directors, together with Mali’s Minister of Culture, government and heritage leaders from Timbuktu, and Amit Sood and Luisella Mazza of Google Arts & Culture in Timbuktu.
As Imam Ben Essayouti showed the visitors the renowned Djinguereber Mosque, built in the 14th century, he proudly declared that he was the first person in Timbuktu to go online.
To spread the word about the plight of Mali and Timbuktu – known as birthplace of blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and as a historic center of commerce, civilization and learning on par with the Florentine Renaissance – the Timbuktu Renaissance produced a short film narrated by Morgan Freeman, who traces his own roots to Timbuktu. The video chronicles the history of the city as an ancient center of culture and learning, the invasion and occupation in recent years, and the hope for a positive future, with the return of music and sustainable economic development.
Imam Ben Essayouti and Diadie Hammadoune Maiga (who served as Timbuktu’s official interlocutor with the occupying extremists) watch the Timbuktu Renaissance video.
In Mali, the Timbuktu Renaissance co-directors also visited Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara, known as the "bad-ass librarian of Timbuktu,” who masterminded the plan to smuggle hundreds of thousands of manuscripts out of Timbuktu under the noses of the occupying militants. The Timbuktu Renaissance worked with Google Arts & Culture and Dr. Haidara to digitise and shed light on the manuscripts.
Timbuktu Renaissance co-directors learned from Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara about the manuscript treasures safely stored at his non-profit organization SAVAMA-DCI.
People of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, from Timbuktu and the surrounding areas, flocked to the Timbuktu Renaissance’s first public concert, where they listened and danced together to "the nightengale of Timbuktu" Khaira Arby’s infectious rhythms. Leaders of the three main youth groups – usually rivals – were so inspired by the spirit of unity they took to the stage to pledge to work together. Youth leapt onstage in a traditional Tuareg dance.
The morning after the concert, the driver at the Auberge du Désert, where the concert was held, captured the sentiment of many, “At the concert, I could once again envision a peaceful future. Last night I slept soundly for the first time since the occupation.”
Khaira Arby performing at the inaugural Timbuktu Renaissance concert in Timbuktu, December 2017.
Beginning with the Khaira Arby concert in December 2017, the Timbuktu Renaissance hosted free public concerts in Timbuktu nearly every month. For Timbuktu’s elders, such as Imam Ben Essayouti and historian Salem Ould El Hadj, the concerts have “brought life back to Timbuktu” and have helped restore its traditional harmony and social cohesion among diverse groups.
The youth enjoy the opportunity to mingle with friends and dance, but they also take away deeper messages from the music. Lodia, a Timbuktu-based rapper and TR concert performer, notes, “Many people think music is made for dancing. Music is not just for making people dance, but rather to awaken, comfort, educate, and mobilize. Music is about cohesion, reunion, and cultural diversity. Music goes where you haven’t set foot yet. Music is a catalyst for civic building."
Imarhane group from M’Bera refugee camp performing and inspiring the crowd to dance at a concert in Timbuktu on January 12, 2019.
The TR concerts regularly feature Tuareg musicians from the refugee camps in Mauritania. Their presence serves as a reminder of the unfinished business of re-integrating these Malians displaced by the conflict, a message underscored by their lyrics about peace, harmony, and social cohesion.
Timbuktu Renaissance has been responsible for a host of events that bring people from various regions together to clap, sing and reunite over a shared love of music; from holding regular concerts to initiating events that promote peace and unity even in challenging circumstances, such as when violence flared briefly in Timbuktu in September 2019 and the global pandemic that sent the world into lockdown in 2020.
Music leads in Mali, so by bringing together musicians from across the country to play together at festivals, they model peace and unity for the audience of these collective cultural celebrations.
As well as hosting events, Timbuktu Renaissance has also been responsible for the production of music albums, one of which captures Takamba, the traditional music that celebrates key events in daily life in northern Mali, but has never before been professionally recorded in its pure form and is threatened with extinction. Sung in both Songhai and Tamachek, Takamba provides a natural bridge between these two groups. The album and its performance is yet another example of how music can come to represent "a Mali that is united in its cultural diversity from North to South," as put by a member of the Collective for Peace performance group.
At the Ségou Festival in February 2020, Kader Tarhanine, the latest Tuareg musical sensation, jams with Vieux Farka Touré, symbolizing the unity of Timbuktu’s two main ethnic groups.
In 2021 the Timbuktu Renaissance launched a program of residencies in which Malian artists traveled to neighboring countries for a week of workshops, conversations, and jam sessions, culminating in a final public performance.
Although countries in the Sahel share common problems of violence from extremism, desertification caused by climate change, corruption, poverty and lack of opportunity, their citizens rarely have an opportunity to exchange experiences and ideas. The culminating concerts of the TR workshops spread not only new, collaborative music, but also shared ideas about peace and countering violence and extremism.
Timbuktu musician Wanty Ag talks about how music can erase differences and bring people together. “Music is about cohesion, reunion, and the preservation of our culture. What impressed me was to see all the communities of Timbuktu, black and white, coming together around music, listening to each other, dancing, and forgetting all that has happened since 2012.”
The Timbuktu Renaissance is grateful to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) for supporting its activities to promote peace through music and culture.