NORTHAMPTON -- Mali, a country internationally recognized for its culturally inspired music, is losing one of its most precious resources, due to a music ban imposed by nationalist Islamic militants. Late last year, extremists sent death threats to musicians in northern Mali, forcing many of them into exile. Drums and guitars were burned, music venues closed and the legendary Mali music festival, Festival in the Dessert, was canceled.
But in Northampton, the music of Mali lives on, as coffee company Dean's Beans host its Music from around the World series at the Iron Horse. This Saturday, musicians Amadou & Mariam, who have been called the poster children of West African music, will bring their legendary sound and brightly colored wardrobe all the way to the Iron Horse stage.
"They have a very compelling story," said Jim Neill, marketing director at the Iron Horse Entertainment Group.
Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia, who are touring and could not be reached by press time, both became blind as children. They met at Mali's Institute for Young Blind in 1977, married in 1980 and began collaborating musically in 1983. Since then, they have toured with U2 and Coldplay, preformed at President Obama's Noble Peace Prize ceremony in 2009 and won two BBC Radio Awards for World Music.
"(Bagayoko and Doumbia) have been involved in a lot of remix projects, so their music has been discovered by people who are just world music fans," Neill said.
Early in their careers, their music swayed more towards a traditional West African sound. But Bagayoko and Doumbia's trademark sound has evolved to combine electric guitars, trumpets and violins in arrangements that can only be described as Afro-blues.
At the Iron Horse, attendees can expect to hear songs from their 2008 album "Folila," as well as their most popular song, "Sénégal Fast Food," with Manu Chao.
Bagayoko and Doumbia are deeply involved in the musical crisis happening in Mali. They speak in an interview in a documentary, "Sahel Calling," part of a musical movement to raise awareness of the conflict and the people it has made homeless -- called "a catalyst film project for action in Mali and the Sahel."
A short version of the film will launch worldwide, free, today. The full extended film is set for release sometime this fall. It carries the voices of many musicians and refugees who are among the thousands displaced during the crisis in Mali.
"The film portrays, in their own words and music, what will be lost if the musicians of Mali are silenced," said Jeryl Julian Cissé, assistant in the Calling Sahel Project Team, in a letter to Neill.
Cissé described the music in Mali as "essential foundation to the Malian culture and history."
Having met the producer and director of the Calling Sahel Project, Kathryn Werntz, in Dakar, Senegal, Cissé said the inspiration for the mission came a trip Werntz took to Mali. After getting lost on a motorcycle in the desert, Werntz was rescued by kind local Malians.
"When the crisis erupted more than a year ago," Cissé said, "very little was reported, much less done to intervene."
Werntz set out on a mission to raise awareness of this terrible injustice, and her passion has led to "Sahel Calling."
Neill explains that he too knew nothing of the unrest in Mali before booking the Music from Around the World series. When the Iron Horse and Dean's Beans decided to partner in and began booking, they were alerted to the crisis, and so they began promoting awareness through the concerts.
"It just so happens that the majority of artist we booked for the series are from Mali, so we've unavoidably been exposed to this news," he said. "I don't know if I ever would have heard about this, or if most Americans have heard about it."
Music like that of Amadou & Mariam moves through the world, engaging its listeners in a rich culture that they may otherwise never experience. Bagayoko and Doumbia, along with many other West African musicians, risk their lives by speaking and singing out about this travesty.
"There so much chaos going on elsewhere that something like this is kind of down the list," said Neill, "but it's pretty startling and very scary that this kind of thing is happening, especially for the artists."
If you go ...
What: Amadou & Mariam will play the Iron Horse
Where: 20 Center St., Northampton
When: Monday at 7 p.m.
Admission: $35 in advance, $40 at the door
What: 'Sahel Calling' mini-documentary launches, free
Where: Public screenings are planned this summer in Northampton and in Brattleboro, Vt.
Anyone may screen the film in their own living room. Find it at www.sahelcalling.com