Fortnightly(ish) Review: Hip-hop in Mali, Nepal, Springsteen and Uzbek Elite Pop

Mali: coup, secession, food crisis and hip-hop

Mali is in the midst of great political turmoil.  In March a military junta ousted the President, suspended the 1992 constitution and took control of the country, which had been due for Presidential elections in April.  The government’s mishandling of the Tuareg rebellion in the country’s north was cited as the motivating factor for the coup (I wrote about that rebellion in an earlier post).

Following the coup Tuareg rebels, namely the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), declared an independent Azawad covering a broad swathe of the country’s north, including Timbuktu.  To further compound matters Islamist group Ansar Dine has made a counter-claim to stewardship of Azawad, and central Mali is part of the Sahel, a region facing a severe food shortage.

So seemingly out of nowhere (although not to all), Mali has been transformed from a bastion of west African democratic consolidation into “the Afghanistan of West Africa”.  Well, at the very least it faces directionless military rule and possible bifurcation.  Some young Malians have expressed their frustration with their country’s politics, both pre- and post-coup, through hip-hop as detailed in this article on Bridges From Bamako.  The article makes the interesting observation that hip-hop crews in Mali are fulfilling the role traditionally ascribed to civil society, the latter having been co-opted by the political elite.  This is surely the case in a number of other countries too.

What is happening in Mali is compelling, particularly when you’re sitting in a country which is also 20-odd years into democratic rule and subject to endemic corruption, and is about to hold a parliamentary election.  Mali’s Presidential election, which was to have taken place in April, was initially postponed  to May.  It has now been put off until 2017, along with parliamentary elections which were originally scheduled for this July.

What’s a country like Nepal doing with politicians like these?

Just under a month ago Nepal’s protracted constitution writing process collapsed.  I wrote a fairly detailed article about it on South Asia Masala so I won’t harp on about it here.  All I will say is that things are not looking any rosier now than they did a month ago.  This week the hardline faction of the ruling Maoists finally made good on its threat to split from the party.  The newly formed Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (it has dropped the ‘Unified’ from the original Maoist party’s name) rejects parliamentarianism and will not rule out a people’s revolt or a return to all out war.  Meanwhile, as Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai toddled off to the UN’s environmental gab-fest in Brazil, his government was censured by the Electoral Commission for making changes to key police personnel despite its caretaker status, and accused of curbing press freedom for demoting a state TV executive for televising opposition protests.

Amrit Gurung, lead singer of Nepathaya, a band I blogged about when I was still living in Nepal, has added his voice to the debate in a couple of articles in the Nepali Times.  In the first, published a few days before the Constituent Assembly expired, he added his view to the debate over whether or not Nepal’s states should be defined on the basis of ethnicity.  Gurung made the case in favour of ethnic inclusiveness, stating he is Nepali before he is Gurung or any other identity.  He reiterated that position in his latest article published this week.

Who Da Boss?

In a recent article The Guardian argues that Bruce Springsteen is the last protest singer (at least in stadiums), taking a swing at Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Coldplay, U2 and Glastonbury in the process.  The author also sort of has a go at Neil Young and Bob Dylan.  I think.  And Jarvis Cocker and Sting, he says, have chosen the wrong issues to protest.  Personally I don’t think all musicians need to foist their politics on their fans.  In fact most time I think it’s preferable they don’t.

The article’s survey of stadium rockers is far from exhaustive: why mention Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, but not Pearl Jam for example?  Another politically engaged musician is Ry Cooder, who is preparing to release a uber-political album in the lead-up to America’s November Presidential elections.  The video below contains some of one song from the album, the excellent ‘Mutt Romney Blues’, about Mitt Romney strapping his dog to the roof of his car on a 12 hour drive.


Central Asia has a new pop princess: GooGoosha, aka Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimova.  Unsurprisingly, the music is terrible.

The Shining Path, Turkmenistan and Tuareg Rebels via Townes Van Zandt

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Pancho & Lefty’, ‘I’ll Be Here in the Morning’ and ‘Brand New Companion’ by Townes Van Zandt.

I’m going country for this week’s good, bad, ugly post to make up for bagging the genre (or a subsection of it) a bit in my last post.

Townes Van Zandt was a master singer-songwriter, active from the mid sixties until his death in 1997 at the age of 52.  He was not an innovator, but rather a master craftsman who took country and folk music to brilliant heights (aesthetically) and depths (in terms of heart achingly depressing content).

During the 1980s, radical Communist group Shining Path was a force to be reckoned with.  Its war with the Peruvian state resulted in around 70,000 deaths.  Inspired by Maoism, the Shining Path hoped to instigate a cultural revolution in Peru, eventually leading to a perfect Communist state.  At the height of its powers it controlled many parts of rural Peru.

Things calmed down after leader – and former philosophy lecturer – Abimael Guzman was captured in 1992.  In the mid 1990s many cadres surrendered, and although it continued to launch sporadic attacks in the 2000s, Shining Path is no longer the existential threat to the Peruvian state it once was.  Remaining Shining Path members are said to have more or less quit ideology for the more lucrative coca trade.

Made famous by Willie Nelson, ‘Pancho & Lefty‘ is a beautiful lament for two washed-up rebel bandits.  Pancho’s dead, and Lefty (who happens to have the right political persuasion) is scraping by in a cheap hotel in Cleveland, Ohio.  The Federales say they could “have him any day.”

There was a further nail in the Shining Path coffin this week with news of the arrest of Jose Eleuterio Flores Hala (alias Comrade Artemio) on Sunday.  Artemio reportedly said last year that the Shining Path had been defeated and wanted to negotiate laying down arms in exchange for prisoner releases.

Incumbent Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was re-elected to Turkmenistan’s Presidency on Sunday with an unbelievable (literally) 97 per cent of the vote.  Voter turnout was reported to be just below 99 per cent in the gas-rich former Soviet state.  Berdymukhamedov has steadily been building his own personality cult in the five years he has been in power (in the vein of his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov).

Van Zandt’s ‘I’ll Be Here in the Morning‘ is a promise (in time broken) from the troubadour to his lover that he’ll choose her over the road.  The chorus in isolation could be given a more sinister interpretation.  Picture a dictator, crooning a lullaby:

Close your eyes, I’ll be here in the morning

Close your eyes, I’ll be here for awhile

Berdymukhamedov’s seven opponents frequently praised him during their campaigns, suggesting their hearts may not have been totally in it.  Turkmenistan is a one party state, so all eight candidates were from the brilliantly named Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.

The point of carrying out such a manifestly bogus display of democracy is not clear.  It has been suggested it may be to give western countries something to point to to justify their doing business with the country.  Central Asia expert Joshua Foust points out that by furnishing journalists with easy copy in the form of outlandish landslide victories and wacky personality cults, Turkmenistan manages to distract the world from the very serious, and very dry abuses, it inflicts on its people.


One of the ways Muammar Qaddafi secured his position for so long was to lend moral and material support to a number of African insurgent movements.  Indebted rebel armies would then lend reciprocal mercenary support to their northern patron (to drastically simplify these complicated relationships).  Now that Qaddafi’s gone, those fighters are streaming back to their origins, along with his weapons.

Nowhere has this been more visible than in Mali.  Over the last few weeks Mali’s arid north has seen the return of hundreds of Tuareg rebels.  The Tuareg rebels’ stated goal is secessionist.  They seek to create a new state called Azawad.  The rebels, armed like they never have been before with heavy weapons such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft arms, have caught the Malian army off guard.

The lyrics of ‘Brand New Companion‘ jar, sort of, with its style, which is blues.  The narrator has found a new woman, so why the blues?  It seems any joy is tempered by regret and/or pessimism: he swears he’ll “do right this time”.

His way of describing his new companion is also unusual.  Focusing as it does on unromantic physical detail, it leads the audience to question the sentience of the object of his affection.  He could be talking about a car, a fishing rod.  He could be talking about a gun.

She fits just like my guitar

Man she’s near as tall as me

She got arms just like two rattle snakes

Legs just like a willow in a breeze

I’m gonna track her with my body

And I wanna trace her with my mind

Back in Mali, so far there have been dozens of casualties on both sides and at least 55,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, many crossing into neighbours Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania.  Violent demonstrations, protesting the inefficacy of the government’s response, have broken out in the country’s south.

To compound matters, northern Mali is part of the greater Sahel region (between the Sahara and Sudanian Savannas) which is facing the immediate prospect of a severe food shortage due mainly to drought.

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