ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now to another collision of life and art. When Islamist rebels took over parts of northern Mali, they imposed strict laws banning singing and dancing. In a culture for which music is central, musicians fled south to the capital, Bamako, or out of the country. Since then, a French-led offensive has pushed back the rebels and eased the restrictions. And now, one of Mali's best-known musicians from the north has released an album that explores this time of violence and change.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton recently met him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: It's Friday night in Bamako and this club, a live music venue in the Malian capital, has come alive. Guitarist and singer Baba Salah is on the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QUIST-ARCTON: His hometown, Gao, along the banks of the River Niger, on the fringes of the Sahara Desert, hit the headlines as the first city in the north to be liberated by French-backed Malian forces in January. Gao was one of three regional northern centers captured by rebels and jihadists a year ago. Islamists warned musicians that their tongues would be sliced out if they continued to sing and play. Salah says artists left in a hurry.

BABA SALAH: (Through Translator) When we saw them burning musical instruments in Gao, we realized the threats against us were dead serious. So, all the musicians fled. It is as if part of our own culture was taken hostage.

QUIST-ARCTON: They say Mali without music is a country without a soul.

SALAH: (Through Translator) That's so true. I ask myself if Mali can exist without music. Everything important in Mali is linked to music. Where I come from in the north, in our society, births, baptisms, naming and circumcision ceremonies, marriages, all are accompanied by music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QUIST-ARCTON: Baba Salah was in studio, putting the finishing touches to his latest album last year, when Mali fell apart. He decided to call the new recording "Dangay," which means "The North" in his Songhai language. The album, in part, sounds the alarm about the problems in his northern home region and what Salah describes as human rights violations by the Islamist fighters.

SALAH: (Through Translator) What I'm saying in the album "Dangay," is, above all, that people must pay attention to what's been happening in the north, regarding human rights abuses and punishments. The world must not close its eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

QUIST-ARCTON: The new album features songs about love, but also about social issues such as child labor, the environment and farming - like this track, "Fari," which means "Agriculture."

SALAH: (Through Translator) You know, agriculture is the ideal engine for development in Africa. We have to develop our continent.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

SALAH: (Singing in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: "Fari," performed live by Baba Salah and his band, has the patrons swaying and clapping on the dance floor at the club where he plays every Friday night.

SALAH: (Through Translator) People laughed, they danced. For the three or four hours that we were playing, you forgot everything and everyone becomes your brother. You see images other than war.

QUIST-ARCTON: Baba Salah says it warms his heart. And he's hopeful that Mali will come right in the end.

SALAH: (Through Translator) Music has a spiritual power to heal. It has a profound ability to overcome perhaps every hurdle. Maybe people are angry right now and it's difficult to control some of them. But we condemn retaliation against anyone. We are all Malians. We are all brothers. If anyone has anything to say, let them put it on the table and make peace through dialogue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(APPLAUSE)

QUIST-ARCTON: Baba Salah's new release is called "Dangay."

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

SALAH: (Singing in foreign language)

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