Timbuktu is a famously storied place that still holds great historical significance. It was the epicenter of African knowledge and scholarship; that was not erased despite best efforts. The Timbuktu manuscripts from the 14th to 16th century have been preserved against impossible odds by generations of individual families and the people who evacuated them during Mali’s extremist crises.
The attempted destruction of these important documents and the libraries in which they were kept, led to the first case of cultural destruction being tried in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2016. Alleged Islamist extremist, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, was found guilty of intentionally ordering attacks on religious and historic buildings in Timbuktu and sentenced to nine years in prison.
The guardians of the manuscripts (like something straight out of an African futurist novel) are now ensuring the remaining manuscripts are digitised. You can immerse yourself in 40,000+ of these digitised pages.
“In the dark night of our present existence, manuscripts are the searchlights that probe our past”- Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara, founder of SAVAMA-DCI.
Mali is also known for its unique architecture, seen in its mosques, mausoleums, and monuments. Similar to the manuscripts, these structures have not been laid waste but maintained over time by the communities around them and will in time be restored after recent skirmishes damaged them. Anyone can now virtually tour the Great Mosque of Djenne in 3D or the Great Mosque of Njono in street view.
In as much as there is a lot to admire and learn from Mali’s past, its contemporary art and music have just as big of an impact. Since the 13th century, a social caste named griots had the important task of passing down and preserving oral tradition. To tell stories they used music and four principal instruments —the kora (a 21-string lute that sounds like a harp), the balafon, the ngoni, and the voice. The griots remain today as oral historians of their communities, musicians, and storytellers.
And now singers like the Malian Grammy nominee Fatoumata Diawara are welcoming the world into a sound that’s been embedded in other global genres for a long time.
For example, when American musician Corey Harris worked on the Scorsese film “Feel Like Going Home” he played with Malian luminaries Ali Farka Toure and Habib Koite to explore ancestral links that survived hundreds of years of isolation due to the slave trade. “The soul of the old [American] blues is the same soul [as] the Bambara people,” Malian singer and guitarist Koite, told the Christian Science Monitor referencing one of the largest ethnic groups in Mali.
The publication details that because traditional Malian music is played primarily with stringed instruments, it makes the bond with the guitar-dominated American blues even more understandable.
For people interested in experiencing culture through music the gallery has a playlist titled ‘the sound of the Sahel’ meaning coast or shore and referring to the ecoclimatic and biogeographic area between the Sahara to the north and the Sudan savanna to the south.
This modern cultural transition can also be seen in modern art. According to the gallery’s text, painters, sculptors, and multimedia artists are “entwining Malian expressive culture with their own unique perspectives, ambitions, and explorations.” Watch the artists explain how their environment shapes their art. “We are artists in the soul…” one artist surmises. Another explains, “I try to recreate the same movement I see in the world, the same disorder, the same chaos that surrounds me, the vivid colours, the shocking characters…” A range of artwork can be viewed on the platform and the artist’s inspiration behind the work shown.
The preservation of African histories and the exploration of their evolution, ensure we do not lose any more of our cultural heritage. Securing our place in humanity’s heritage means the continual transcribing, cataloging, and digitizing of oral and written history as we fight to reclaim and house stolen artefacts.
Read and view more Mali Magic:
Scroll The Timbuktu Manuscripts: Explore 40,000 manuscripts guarded by Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara and SAVAMA-DCI, showcasing Africa’s greatest written legacy.
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