Think Mali, you think ancient - ancient culture, from the fabled world heritage sites in the desert sands of Timbuktu to late blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure.


ALI FARKA TOURE: (Singing in foreign language)

STAMBERG: Here, he's playing with Ry Cooder. And for the past decade, Mali has hosted an annual international music and arts festival in the desert, where Ali Farka and lots of other Malians have performed. But Mali now is a divided nation. Islamists control the rebel-controlled north, and in March a military junta overthrew the democratically elected president in the south. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports on how this dual crisis is affecting culture and tourism in Mali.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: I've come to the main crafts market here in here in Bamako, which is usually teeming. You can buy anything here, from silver earrings to batik fabric. But in the months since the coup here in Mali, no tourists, no customers, no money.

SIDI AG: My name is Sidi, Sidi Ag. I come Nord Mali. I'm selling jewelry and boxes with camel skin, but we not market now. No customers. No touristique.

QUIST-ARCTON: Sidi Ag specializes in the leather craft of the nomadic Tuareg tribe from northern Mali. The vast region of the north is currently under the control of Islamist radicals who fought alongside Tuareg rebels. But the post-coup crisis right here in the capital Bamako is also affecting business.

AG: Yeah, in Mali, I have my family. I have my children - six. I'd like to sell my business, but no business now. No customers.

QUIST-ARCTON: It's a similar story across town at the magnificent National Museum of Mali and its expansive, adjoining gardens. But there's no one around, not a visitor in sight. And that, says the museum's chief researcher, Fatou Toure Sako, breaks her heart and brings tears to her eyes.

FATOU TOURE SAKO: (foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Madame Toure Sako says she's also heartbroken that world heritage sites in historic Timbuktu in the north are being destroyed by Islamist occupiers of the ancient city in the Sahara Desert sands. That view is echoed by the national museum's director, Samuel Sidibe. He says the news is devastating for the culture, history and the future of Mali.

SAMUEL SIDIBE: It's dramatic, even for the museum. But, of course, it is important to be hopeful. We have to keep fighting. I am a fighter for the heritage. If we don't keep fighting, who is going to make the country for us? Nobody. What I have to do is to protect the heritage.

QUIST-ARCTON: Since the rebellion, because of insecurity and the risk of being kidnapped, Timbuktu and the surrounding desert region are now no-go areas for visitors.


UNIDENTIFIED BAND: (Singing in foreign language)

STAMBERG: Each year, the town of Essakane, located beyond Timbuktu, hosts the Festival of the Desert. It showcases local and international talent. About the same time as turbaned Tuareg secessionists announced their rebellion in January, Manny Ansar was organizing the festival he founded, which remains his passion.

MANNY ANSAR: What is happening now is very sad. And it's really against all what we wish for by bringing people from different cultures, from different religions to meet together to have music, to have fun.


UNIDENTIFIED BAND: (Singing in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Star performance, such as the Mailian Tuareg desert rock group Tinariwen has played at the Essakane Festival. The band won this year's Best World Music Grammy for the album "Tassili Desert Sessions." Manny Ansar, the festival organizer, used to manage Tinariwen. Manny Ansar is unsure what will become of Mali's Festival of the Desert next year, given the political and security upheaval. Plus, the armed Islamists in command of the north have banned public singing and dancing, and all entertainment. They're meting out punishment to those found flouting the ban.

ANSAR: We'd like to fight by music, by bringing joy where people have tried to bring death and fighting. This is our way to resist, to tell to all these people violence is not the solution. The solution is to live together. Really, this battle and this war should stop.

QUIST-ARCTON: Manny Ansar says he'll take his music festival to another of the world's deserts if he has to, but he'd much rather it remained right here in Mali, in the Sahara. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Bamako.

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