Musicians in Mali are defying militants in the North who have declared Shariah law and banned all music but the Islamic call to prayer.

Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara has gathered together a group of 40 of the African nation's top musicians to record the song Mali-ko (Peace) and appeal for an end to the current conflict, believed to be fostered by al-Qaeda sympathizers.

The group, dubbed Voices United for Mali, includes internationally renowned singers and artists like Amadou and Mariam, Oumou Sangaré, Vieux Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté, as well as young musicians just beginning gain renown in their country.

The culture of the west African nation is musically rich, with many local musicians earning a living from playing at weddings, funerals, festivals and community events. However, many have fled south to Mali’s capital of Bamako or to refugee camps in southeastern neighbour Burkina Faso in order to avoid the conflict.

Musical culture key for West African nation

Strict Islamist militants imposing a version of Shariah law first seized control of major towns across northern Mali last March. They have since solidified their grip on the North and forced hundreds of thousands to flee.

Music has always been a resource and a type of ambassador for Mali, British journalist Andy Morgan told CBC News.

'It is strange for us to understand the extent to which it is impossible to listen or play music in the North...The only way you can play it is to drive miles out into the desert, where you are beyond the earshot of anyone' —Journalist Andy Morgan

Morgan is writing a report on music, culture and the effect of the crisis in Mali. He says musicians he's interviewed say the country's diverse culture — created from a mix of tribes — revolves around music and art. 

"Basically, Malian society cannot exist without music," he said.

"It is strange for us to understand the extent to which it is impossible to listen or play music in the North. You can’t do it anymore. The only way you can play it is to drive miles out into the desert, where you are beyond the earshot of anyone."

The current conflict has threatened music throughout the country, including forcing Mali's renowned Festival in the Desert to relocate. According to Morgan, festival director Manny Ansar is among those speaking out against the music ban and in support of his country's culture.

The latest edition of Festival in the Desert, which attracted 700-800 international guests three years ago, is being held "in exile," with a caravan of artists advocating peace and national unity travelling from Mauritania to Mali and onto the Tuareg refugee camps in Burkina Faso.

The festival has traditionally showcased Tuareg and other traditional forms of music and also attracted international stars such as U2 frontman Bono.  

French troops are currently on the ground in Mali and helped Malian troops reclaim the town of Diabaly, located about 460 kilometres north of the capital.