And I'm Melissa Block. The West African nation of Mali is perhaps best known in this country for its music. Salif Keita and the late Ali Farka Toure have become international stars, but music is now banned inside much of Mali by the al-Qaida linked militants who control the north of the country, including Timbuktu. The only exception to the ban is Quranic verse.

The militants have also attempted to shut down Mali's Festival In The Desert, which for a decade has attracted the likes of Bono and Robert Plant. From the southern city of Bamako, Tamasin Ford has the story of some artists who are now fighting back.

AMKOULLEL: (Speaking foreign language)

TAMASIN FORD, BYLINE: Amkoullel steps up to the mic at Peli Peli(ph), little bar in the heart of the city known for attracting some of Mali's top musicians.


FORD: 33-year-old Amkoullel sings about self-image, immigration and respect. He's played all over the world, performing with Malian legends Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate. But it wasn't until last year, eight months before a military coup unseated the democratically-elected government in March that he caught the attention of authorities. Concerned about the Islamic insurgency already underway in the north, he created an association called Plus Jamais Ca, French for "never again" and recorded the song "SOS."


FORD: In the song, you can hear the French lyrics "C'est un SOS, SOS," declaring Mali is in a state of emergency.


FORD: The music video shows footage of men with guns, women displaced from their homes, people marching, events that were happening in the north long before the military ousted a government that was seen as doing nothing about the insurgency.

AMKOULLEL: Everybody could feel that something would happen because people was hopeless, waiting after change.

FORD: Al-Qaida-linked militants have long been a threat in the north. Since the coup in March, they now occupy the entire area. Amkoullel wrote the song to grab attention, to stop this from happening, but since then, it's been banned by the government-controlled media.

AMKOULLEL: They just want me to do a video with flowers and butterflies, but we are not living with butterflies. We are living with guns, with al-Qaida, with Sharia, all those kind of things that are not Malian.

FORD: "SOS" has been banned, perhaps out of fear it could incite people to take action against the new government. And Amkoullel has received death threats. But in the north, a more sinister form of censorship is taking place. Al-Qaida-linked militants have banned music of any kind, even cellphone ringtones. It has put an end to the famous Festival in the Desert, in Timbuktu, organized by Manny Ansar.

MANNY ANSAR: This is why we are really sad, because we started to build something very important for Timbuktu, for Mali.

FORD: Ansar is from Timbuktu. His family are nomadic herders who roam the vast dunes north of the city. His life has been threatened if he goes back, but he hasn't given up. He's still organizing the festival, but at a different venue, with a different name, the Festival in Exile. It will be a caravan of artists traveling and performing through West Africa, culminating in a three-day event in Burkina Faso.

ANSAR: We can't fight with gun against them. For me, our only way to fight is to fight by culture, by music.

FORD: Music is at the heart of life in Mali, intrinsically connected to everything, celebrations, commemorations. History is told through songs.

ANSAR: Music really has a special place in Malian society. Our daily life has music everywhere. It's more power than law. It's a kind of social law, sometime more strong than the political or official law.


FORD: Back in Peli Peli, the club's resident (unintelligible) player, world famous (unintelligible) is on stage. The Reggae Sisters, Mali's only female reggae act, join in from their seats.


FORD: Music is very much alive here in the capital. Musicians here at Peli Peli are defiant against outsiders who report music in Mali is losing its voice. It is being silenced in the north of the country, but it's too much a part of the culture to ever disappear. For NPR News, this is Tamasin Ford.

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