NOWHERE does music have a greater social and political importance than in the vast desert state of Mali.
It is shocking, therefore, that it has been banned across much of the two-thirds of Mali now controlled by Islamist rebel groups.
As ''Manny'' Ansar, the director of the country's celebrated Festival in the Desert, which has now been forced out of the country, explained: ''It's through our music that we know history and our own identity. Our elders gave us lessons through music. It's through music that we declare love and get married - and we criticise and make comments on the people around us.''
Malian musicians have become household names in the West, from the late Ali Farka Toure to the bravely experimental Rokia Traore, currently appearing at the Sydney Festival. The band Tinariwen has performed alongside the Rolling Stones. There is the passionate social commentary of Oumou Sangare and the rousing, commercially successful African pop of Amadou & Mariam.
And yet Islamic rebel groups are attempting to wipe out this ancient culture - and in the process have forced Malian musicians to examine the role they should now play.
Ansar said he was ''ashamed at what has happened - and it was provoked by people who call themselves Muslims, like me''.
At a censorship conference in Oslo, he said the militias were stopping the music ''to impose their authority, so there's nothing to threaten them. That's why they are attacking the traditional chiefs and the musicians. And they are using concepts of Islam that are 14 centuries old and have never been applied.
''I find it strange that these ideas are being imposed now. It's as if they took a computer and wiped the hard drive, and then imposed their ideas instead.''
The situation is particularly painful for musicians from the north of Mali, for bands such as Tinariwen from the nomadic Tuareg or Kel Tamashek people, whose international popularity has been helped for the last 12 years by the Festival in the Desert.
The rebellion has seen Islamist groups take over from the Tuareg nationalists of yesteryear, partly because the former nationalist leader Iyad Ag Ghali (whose songs were once covered by Tinariwen) has converted to a more extreme form of Islam.
When Tinariwen played in London last year, guitarist Eyadou Ag Leche talked of their problems since the Islamists took over the north. Young people have been stopped from listening to music and families have had their televisions smashed for watching music shows, but music was still being played ''underground''.
As for the Islamists, he said he ''didn't know where these people had come from'', and suggested they were financed through Qatar.
In the Malian capital Bamako, outside the rebel-controlled area, musicians are determined to keep working, but face different problems.
Bassekou Kouyate, the world's leading ngoni player, said musicians in the city are unable to work at the moment as clubs have been closed, all concerts have been postponed, few weddings are taking place, and ''even the concert in honour of the great balafon player Keletigui Diabate, who died recently, has been cancelled''.
''The government is nervous and afraid of terrorist attacks on public gatherings,'' he said. ''They are asking everyone to wait until the situation in the north has calmed down.''
But he and his wife, the singer Amy Sacko, did take part in a national television program, along with Oumou Sangare, in which they ''all sang against all forms of sharia law''.
Asked about the French military involvement, he said ''They have saved Africa. They have saved Mali from the Islamists. I am going to buy a French flag to put in front of my house, to say thank you. That is how us Malians feel now.''
The singer Fatoumata Diawara has just finished a song and video, Peace, which will be quickly released in Bamako.
The aim, she said, was to ''show that not all Tuaregs want an independent state in the north - we want one Mali''.
Tuareg musicians appear on the song, as part of an extraordinary cast that features 13 musicians, including legendary kora player Toumani Diabate and guitar hero Djelimady Tounkara, and 29 singers, including Sangare, Amadou & Mariam and Ivory Coast reggae artist Tiken Jah Fakoly. ''There has never been anything like this in Mali,'' Diawara said. ''The political situation is bad so it's time for the musicians to come together.''