The gang then removed guitars, amplifiers, speakers, microphones and a drum kit from the house, doused them with petrol, and set them ablaze. In northern Mali, religious war has been declared on music.

When a rabble of different Islamist groups took control of the region in April there were fears that its rich culture would suffer. But no one imagined that music would almost cease to exist – not in Mali, a country that has become internationally renowned for its sound.

"Culture is our petrol," says Toumani Diabaté, the Malian kora player who has collaborated with Damon Albarn and Björk, to name but a few. "Music is our mineral wealth. There isn't a single major music prize in the world today that hasn't been won by a Malian artist."

"Music regulates the life of every Malian," adds Cheich Tidiane Seck, a prolific Malian musician and producer. "From the cradle to the grave. From ancient times right up to today. A Mali without music? No … I mean … give me another one!"

And yet that is the bland reality dawning on this once joy-filled land. International observers claim the leaders of the three armed Islamic groups who now control the northern Malian cities of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao are motivated by money and power rather the dream of a caliphate in the Sahel. There are strong ties between these groups and the less than holy interests of major drug-traffickers and arms smugglers.

But many of the mujahideen who have zoned in on the conflict from all over the Muslim world are fired by an unquestionable religious zeal. The same goes for Iyad Ag Ghaly, a Touareg strongman and born-again Salafist, who founded the Ansar-ud-Deen movement at the end of last year.

"He believes in what he's doing," says Manny Ansar, director of the Festival in the Desert that has been taking place every January in and around Timbuktu and Kidal since 2001. "And that's what frightens me. I'm not convinced that he wants to kill everyone who is not a Muslim, like the people in al-Qaida do, but I've seen him giving up the fruits of this life for God."