‘The Malian people look to us. They have lost hope in politics. But music has always brought hope in Mali. Music has always been strong and spiritual, and has had a very important role in the country, so when it comes to the current situation, people are looking to musicians for a sense of direction.’ Fatoumata Diawara

Before the March 2012 coup d’etat of President Amadou Toumani Touré, very few outside of West Africa knew much about Mali (except for perhaps a group of historians and world music devotees). Much of Mali is encompassed by the Sahara desert, which, despite its often scorching temperatures, has been aptly described as an ‘inland sea’, connecting the Arab and Berber cultures of the north, with the Fulani, Bambara, Mandinka and others in the south. After Muammar Gaddafi fell in the Libyan civil war, huge caches of heavy weapons were left unguarded – many ended up crossing that ‘desert sea’ and arrived in Mali. Fueled by outside groups, Al Qaeda gained a stronghold in northern Mali, installing Sharia law, closing schools, and banning so-called ‘Satan’s music’. Tragically, the region that had long been known for its ancient manuscripts, magnificent mud-architectural mosques, and captivating folk music was engulfed in conflict.

Mali’s musicians have never shied away from mixing politics and song. Vocalist Oumou Sangare (who is also a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador) has been outspoken on issues including women’s rights and polygamy since the 1990s. In 2013, when the conflict made it impossible for Mali to host its renowned Festival in the Desert, Sangare helped to take the show on the road, headlining the Caravan For Peace, performing in Tuareg refugee camps in Burkina Faso. Similarly, Khaira Arby (cousin of legendary guitarist Ali Farka Touré) has taken on issues such as female circumcision in her music. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when war threatened to engulf Mali, its leading musicians banded together. Fatoumata Diawara gathered the nation’s leading musicians together to produce a video calling for a peaceful end to the conflict, most of whom are featured on this compilation, including Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabate, Vieux Farka Touré, Nahawa Doumbia and Khaira Arby.

The role of these musicians cannot be underestimated, as it both galvanized the Malian public, and the international community into action, leading to military involvement by France as well as United Nations peacekeepers that quickly restored calm to most of Mali. Musically and ethnically, Mali is an incredibly diverse country. This album reflects that diversity, featuring driving Tuareg grooves rooted in a nomadic Saharan past, generations-old ‘social advice’ songs, Wassoulou music from the south, and of course there are a host of songs from Mali’s next generation of stars.