When people discover that many of the songs by leading Touareg artists like Tamikrest, Tinariwen or Terakaft are about nostalgia, they’re often puzzled. Nostalgia for what exactly? Surely the black and barren hills of the southern Sahara, the scorpions, the 50C summer temperatures, the droughts, the political turmoil, the brittle harshness of sun-baked nature all amount to something godforsaken, unworthy of longing or nostalgia. And yet the love of a Touareg (or ‘Kel Tamashek’ as they call themselves), a Songhai, a Moor or any of the other desert peoples for their sandy wilderness is every bit as strong as that of an Irishman for the green green grass of home.
A powerful symbol of that love is the enormous dune the Songhoi call ‘Koïma Hondo’, which lies on the banks of the broad Niger River, not far from the ancient city of Gao. The dune, whose ‘feet’ cool themselves in the blue waters of the Niger, turns pink when the sun sets. Hence its nickname; La Dune Rose. Until recently it was Gao’s premier tourist attraction, but now that there are no more tourists, its older populace, the wise spirits and sorcerers who the Songhoi believe use the dune as a meeting place, have reasserted themselves. They’re holding the dune in trust, while the world around them descends into confusion, conflict and barbarity.
On 22nd August 2012, a heavily bearded spokesperson for the MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), a motley militia of radical Islamists and big time drug barons, who, at time of writing, currently control Gao, issued a decree banning all western music in northern Mali. “We don’t want Satan’s music,” the spokesman declared. “Sharia demands it. It is the will of God and we must obey.”
The decree effectively outlawed music and forced musicians like Sidi Toure, who had been the director of Gao’s prestigious regional orchestra, the Songhoi Stars, into exile. Anyone caught listening to the radio, watching TV, or playing songs on his or her mobile phone risks a whipping. Musicians have been stopped at checkpoints, their instruments impounded and burnt. Music, the lubricant of life and community, has been driven underground, or out of the territory completely. Tamikrest have fled north over the border into Algeria. Bassekou Kouyate lives down south in Bamako, the economically blighted capital city where musicians spend their days wondering where their next meal will come from.
It’s fitting that Sidi Touré has called his latest album ‘Koïma’, which literally means “go and listen” in Songhoi. Even if it might be impossible in a physical sense, this is the time for all Songhoi to go their Ayers Rock, Koïma Hondo, to ask their guardian spirits for courage, honesty, peace and understanding. It’s time for all Touareg to commune with the Kel Essouf, the spirits of the wilderness, to find answers to the pain and suffering they are experiencing. It’s time for the Manding of Segou, the home of Bassekou Kouyate, to do the same.
That spirit world is ancient, and it lives in all the instruments that you’ll hear on stage today; the ngoni lute of Bassekou Kouyate, the electric guitars of Tamekrist, themselves descended from the teherdent of the Tamashek griots, and the acoustic guitar and sokou monocord violin of Sidi Touré. Go, listen, and you’ll hear all those spirits talking to each other, like they have done for centuries. What are they saying?
Their exchange won’t necessarily be one of love and blissful co-habitation. Songhoi and Tamashek have fought periodic wars against each other since the 16th century, when Gao become the capital of a vast Songhoi empire under the emperor Sonni Ali. In the 1990s Songhoi vigilantes killed Touareg civilians, and vice versa. Since the outbreak of the Touareg rebellion in January 2012, which lead directly to the Islamist take over of the northern two-thirds of the country, southern Malians are deeply suspicious of Touareg secessionist intentions. Many Touareg however feel that they need independence in order to preserve their unique nomadic and Berber culture.
So the conversation won’t be easy. But listen to the spirits there in the music and they’ll tell you a deeper tale. They’ll tell you that in that vast desert which outsiders are content to call a wasteland, good for nothing except for the oil, phosphates and uranium that lie under its soil, there exists an endless calm, tranquillity and beauty that makes the nomad cry in his heart every day he is forced to spend in exile. They’ll tell you about their home, where space and time are so abundant that they make a visitor from the time and space-starved west feel light-headed and reborn. They’ll tell you that various ethnic groups – Tamashek, Songhoi, Manding – may have battled each other continuously throughout history, that they may be fighting each other now, but that, in truth, they have also always been neighbours, sharing the same vast space, ribbing each other with gentle humor, tolerant of each other’s presence in times of peace. They’ll tell you about the Sahara’s true soul, a musical soul that no bearded tooled-up Islamist militiaman can destroy.
The spirits are waiting for that soul to reassert itself. You’ll hear them singing their hearts out tonight, out under the stars, around the fire, on the pink dune, by the silvery waters of the great Niger river.
Andy Morgan (c) 2012
Programme notes for the ‘Sahara Soul’ concert at The Barbican, London – January 26th 2013