All the musicians I spoke to agreed; Mali without music would be like Egypt without cotton, a bird without wings, a man without a soul. “I’m a Muslim, but Sharia isn’t my thing,” says Rokia Traore, one of Mali’s most famous international stars. “If I couldn’t go up on stage anymore, I would cease to exist. And without music, Mali will cease to exist.”
Ladies, gentlemen and fellow Womexicans… On the third of January this year, Ansar Eddine, one of the three armed Salafist groups who ruled over the northern two-thirds of Mali and imposed a brutal form of shari’a law on its people, issued what they called their ‘political platform’. In many ways it’s an extraordinary document, of…
BOOK EXTRACT: “Tisrawt is a microcosm of Touareg society,” Melissa explains. “That’s to say, it is a group of people who come from many different clans. Some are pro-MNLA. Some are pro Ansar ud-Dine. Some are pro-Mali. Others say that it’s all nonsense. And the aim is to understand each other, to live together and work together on a common project.”
BOOK EXTRACT: Life in the early 1990s was convivial. There was music. Women felt free to come and go. Some people smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol. The bonds between those young Touareg, their music and their culture seemed strong and unbreakable. No one quite knows why some senior Touareg figures from the northeast, including Iyad Ag Ghali, began to succumb to the message of Pakistani preachers belonging to Tablighi Jama’at.
There are facts about Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that are reassuringly hard and verifiable. The organisation exists. It’s run by Algerian Arabs. It’s made a home from home in the north east of Mali, on Tinariwen’s native earth. It earns millions and millions of euros from kidnapping westerners. No one knows exactly how much. Every now and then it chops the head off one of its victims. All in the service of a dream that has become a nightmare for the people of the Sahara
The word ‘nomad’ might make us dream about freedom, but in the southern Sahara it actually describes a man locked in a pitiless and epic struggle against drought, locusts and oblivion. The scrubland of the Azawak, an immense and table-flat plain in the northwestern corner of Niger, is home to two nomadic peoples, the Touareg and the Woodabé, who have been intimate with this daily existential grind for centuries.
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.
When Tinariwen launch into one of their songs on one of their good nights, I’m immediately transported to the place they come from. My nostrils prick up to the smell of tea, tobacco and gasoline. The pentatonic drone of the music rolls out the endless line of the desert horizons. The perpetual polyrhythms put wanderlust back into my heart and my feet.