Mali's exiled musicians keep the beat

Segou, mali The musicians of Mali have long been celebrities on the world music scene.

Ali Farka Toure's 1994 collaboration with Ry Cooder, "Talking Timbuktu," won the Grammy that year, and was a musical milestone. It made a convincing case for the theory that the roots of American blues lie deep in traditional Malian music.

For the past year, that tradition has been under attack by Islamic extremists who took over the country's north and imposed strict Shariah law in the cities of Gao and Timbuktu, formerly renowned for their music.

Hundreds of Mali's musicians had to flee, and Moussa Maiga was among them.

If he and his band had carried on playing their music in their native city of Gao, they'd have been arrested, or worse.

"They said it was un-Islamic," he explained. As for how they would stop him, Maiga said: "They would break our instruments and whip us bitterly in public."

The musicians in Maiga's group moved to Segou, a bustling town in the center of Mali which has done its best to make room for the steady stream of refugees.

We asked if they'd play for us, so Maiga arranged an impromptu concert in someone's living room -- a dozen neighbors and family members crowding in to enjoy the beat.

Out came the calabash drums, the guitars and the gorgeous dancers.

Tata Waletanna was the star of the show. An elementary school teacher in her hometown of Gao, she fled not only because she refused to accept the Islamic extremists' edict that she could no longer go out alone, but because she said all women in Gao faced the grave danger of being raped.

"It wasn't all the Islamic militants," she said. "Some were pious Muslims, even if they were armed, but not all. We heard they even employed children to scout out pretty women out on their own, who would then be arrested, and raped."

They may be safe now, but there's not much work.

Just two years ago, Segou would have been bustling with preparations for its great annual music festival, which attracted crowds of tourists from as far away as Europe and the U.S. This year, it has been cancelled. Foreigners don't come to Mali these days. The threat of kidnapping and violence has scared them away.

Just 24 hours after our concert came the news that French and Malian forces had re-taken Gao and were on the verge of entering Timbuktu.

Good news for the musicians, but they know the real challenge will be to keep the militants, who have escaped into the surrounding desert, from returning.

Even with help from the armies of neighboring African countries -- Chad, Togo and Burkina Faso -- this vast area, almost twice the size of Texas, will be difficult to secure.

The musicians want desperately to go home, but it's still too early to make the journey with any confidence. So they will stay put for now, riffing hopeful words to a simple guitar melody, "goodbye to war in Mali. Hello to peace."