“As far as I’m concerned, it’s Tinariwen who created the path,” declares Ousmane Ag Mossa, frizzy-locked leader of Tamikrest, in a pre-emptive strike against a thousand inevitable questions. “But the way I see it, if younger bands don’t come through, then Touareg music will eventually die. They created the path and now it’s up to us to walk down it and create the future.”
This is an extract from a pamphlet / article / short book (fate will delete as applicable) that I’m writing about the Touareg blacksmith or artisan. It’s a complex subject and I’m approaching in my usual journalistic and non-academic way. This is bound to ruffle some scholarly feathers…an enjoyable sport in itself. I’m writing this…
I first heard about the Festival in the Desert from Philippe Brix, the lean and indefatigable manager of the French global troubadours, Lo’Jo. Two years ago, on his return from one of Lo’Jo’s regular trips to Bamako, the capital of Mali, Philippe told me that the group had minted a solid and friendly relationship with a band of Touareg musicians from northern Mali called Tinariwen, which means ‘deserts’ or ‘empty places’ in Tamashek, the ancient language of the Touareg people. Philippe had also met a quietly spoken and well-informed Touareg intellectual called Issa Dicko. Dicko was a member of Efes, an official association based in Mali whose goal is to further the political, social and cultural development of Mali’s remote northern desert regions. After many conversations and cups of bitter syrupy tea they decided to stage a festival of Touareg music and culture in the desert around the first full moon of the new millennium.
That’s why the Festivals in the Desert are so important. They give a region previously ravaged by conflict and insecurity the chance to show a peaceful face to the world. They give the chance for the Touareg to prove that far from being bandits, they are a simply another African people in the pressure cooker of enforced modernisation, desperately trying to adapt their millennial nomadic culture to the merciless realities ofa modern globalised world.
Long ago, Staff Benda Bilili understood that any real handicap exists only in the mind, rather than in the legs. Stricken by polio whilst still young, abandoned to their fate in one of the toughest and most dysfunctional cities in the world, forced to survive by courage and wit alone, Ricky, Coco, Roger and the crew have always known that life’s path clings to a vertical cliff face which towers above them. The only way has been up.