Three generations of poets guitarists sing of their hopes for the Sahara at the Taragalte Festival 2016 in Morocco
For the intrepid tourist at least, M’hamid el Ghizlane is the dream Saharan town. A dense green backdrop of palm groves offsets the earthy hues of its ramshackle buildings, their emerald shade shielding the eyes from the surrounding barrenness. The air is clear, limpid, the horizons low and limitless, and apart from the odd rumbling 4×4 engine, puttering moped or braying camel, the silence is profound. There’s the same naked yet comforting feeling that takes possession of you when you’re in any coastal town, the feeling of being close to the edge of an immensity. The Sahara stretches away from M’hamid’s southern boundary for a thousand miles, unalloyed and pristine apart from the odd salt mine, all the way to Timbuktu.
The place isn’t particularly remote in Saharan terms. A relatively smooth modern road – currently being upgraded at huge expense – connects it to the more northerly parts of Morocco, where wealth and power reside. The last stretch from Zagora was first tarmac’d as recently as 1980, in preparation for the one and only visit to the town by the then king of Morocco, Hassan II. “The nomads thought it was a form of red carpet,” says local grandee Halim Sbai, unable to suppress a cynical chuckle, “and that it would be rolled back up again once the king had gone.”
The biggest attraction however, for the intrepid tourist at least, is security. M’hamid is one of the few places left in the entire Sahara that a foreigner can visit in relative safety. Most of the desert is a no-gone zone for anyone who isn’t wearing a bulletproof vest or working for a multinational mining concern. The demons that have come to torment the Sahara in recent years are many and varied, but all mysteriously and symbiotically linked somehow: armed separatists, bearded jihadists, criminal traffickers peddling drugs, arms and human beings, pervasive poverty, corruption, marginalisation and social disharmony. The existential disquiet of most of its older residents could be summed in one neat phrase: Paradise lost. The existential question that torments its youth is how to get that paradise back.
“Before the Europeans came, people crossed the deserts as they wished,” says Issa Dicko, an intellectual from northern Mali who is an authority on the ancient tifinagh alphabet of the nomadic Touareg people. “It was a system that worked, but today the nomads feel imprisoned by events they neither control nor understand. The problems are geo-political but also cultural, because more and more people are abandoning nomadism and adopting a settled life. They can no longer live off caravan trading, as they once did. They can’t even go twenty kilometres into the desert from here before they hit a frontier.”
That frontier, the one dividing Morocco from Algeria, lies just south of M’hamid’s communal boundary and is currently closed to all except wandering camels and criminal traffickers. For most people, getting to the other side, a crow-fly distance of about 30 kilometres, would entail a round trip by car and plane via Casablanca and Algiers of about 3,400 kilometres. An entire criminal mafia has sprung up devoted to stealing the camels who stray over the border. The irony is that this same frontier, with its tight security, is one of the reasons that M’hamid is so safe to visit.
Halim Sbai comes from a long line of desert grandees belonging to the A’arib, a nomadic tribe who speak Hassaniya the west Saharan dialect of Arabic. His uncle Sidi Mohammed Ould Sidi Khalil was a don of the trans-Saharan caravan trade who fought the French coloniser in the 1920s, only to be murdered by a commando from a rival tribe in 1932. His father Mohammed Sheikh Sbai was an opponent of Hassan II who did several stints in jail for his vocal denunciation of corrupt local officialdom.
Back in 2009, Halim and his brother Ibrahim launched a new music festival called Taragalte, the ancient Berber name for M’hamid. They had immediate practical motives: boosting tourism, creating employment, preserving traditional music. But there were also deeper reasons. “The caravans ended because of the frontiers,” Halim says. “The last ones left here in the 1970s, just when the war in the Western Sahara started. The end of caravanning destroyed the social fabric of the Sahara. So we thought, why not create an event that reunites all these people. That was the aim.”
The festival takes place about 4 kilometres out of M’hamid, on a site bordering a gentle sea of undulating dunes dotted with trees, most of which were planted in the past five years by Sahara Roots, a Dutch NGO dedicated to reversing the Sahara’s environmental degradation. The name of this spot is Abaraz, which means ‘place of the Caravan’ in the old Amazigh or Berber tongue. It was here that the returning caravans would earn their first proper taste of life’s sweetnesses – fresh water, milk, dates and women – after months of arid nothingness. Considering how welcome the sweat on an ice-cold bottle of Coca Cola can be after only a few days drive in a comfortable 4×4 from Marrakech, the delight and relief of those bygone desert-travellers can only be imagined. Nearby there was a customs house and a mint to turn all the gold that the caravans transported from Bilad as Sudan – the land of the blacks – into coin, as well as a large community of Jewish traders who lived here “in symbiosis with the local Muslims” according to Issa Dicko, right up until the 1950s, and provided the finance and connections that underpinned the trans-Saharan trade. The twice-yearly arrival of the caravans mutated into a moussem or traditional feast dedicated to Sidi Khalil, a medieval saint and revered forebear of the A’arib. The Taragalte Festival is a modern reincarnation of that ancient celebration.
This year’s edition took place during the relative cool of October, drawing around 1000 locals (who can attend the evening concerts for free) and 300 foreign visitors, including a sizeable contingent of journalists and TV crews, foreign NGOs and volunteers. The US Ambassador to Morocco, the improbably named Dwight L. Bush, was also in attendance and spent a night in a tent at the festival with his entourage. “It was a very strong signal to all Europeans and westerners to say ‘Come, there are no worries in Morocco,” says Halim Sbai.
The bill featured artists from Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Algeria and Niger, representing many strands of the old warp and weft of Saharan society. One of the headliners was Khaira Arby, a diva northern from Mali with a voice powerful enough rearrange your internal anatomy, comes from a neighbourhood of Timbuktu called Abarajo, a southern Saharan distortion of the world Abaraz. The other end of line, in other words.
The uncontested stars of the festival were Tinariwen, the globally renowned band of Touareg guitarists and poets from northern Mali. The men who founded the band were mere teenagers when drought, poverty and oppression drove them out from their ancestral homeland back in the 1970s. It was a brutal dislocation, a head-on collision between an ancient nomadic existence and the modern vicissitudes of city life, unemployment and paperless vagrancy. That odyssey, which Tinariwen shared with an entire generation of Touareg men, resulted in a twin birth: a new political militancy and a new style of desert music that fused traditional melodies and poetry with the whiplash of the electric guitar.
Tinariwen’s leader Ibrahim ag Alhabib is the closest thing to a universal cultural icon that today’s Sahara has to offer – a mix of Marley, Lennon, Dylan and Che, all rolled up into one. Along with thousands of other angry Touareg youth like him, he fought with the Touareg nationalist militia, the MPLA, against the armies of Mali and Niger in 1990-1. They called them the ‘ishumar’ generation, a cheeky Tamashek bastardisation of the French world chomeur, meaning ‘unemployed’. They were the Sahara’s generation X – landless, jobless, vagrant, rebellious, angry, hopeful and in love with modernity. Now Ibrahim is the most famous Touareg on the planet, a status that only music with its power to speak across oceans and frontiers could possibly have bestowed. Touareg politicians are nowhere in comparison.
I find him one morning sitting in a small patch of shade beside a large white tent, not far from the main festival ‘village’, slowly brewing up a scalding bittersweet cup of Touareg tea. He’s a shy, gentle man, who, despite global success and years of international touring, only feels truly at ease in the Sahara. Tinariwen recorded their new album Elwan here at the festival site last year because their own corner of the desert around the town of Kidal in northern Mali is too dangerous to visit. 2012’s Touareg-led uprising against the central government and the subsequent jihadist takeover of the northern two thirds of Mali, which lead to a ban on music, have drained local people of their cultural vigour and turned the region into a sinkhole of crime and desperation, hostile to outsiders.
“I don’t know what’s happening,” Ibrahim tells me when I ask him about the situation back home. “It’s even hard for nomads now, because they’re scared. All they want is to be left alone with their animals. Even the animals are scared. Yes! It’s true!” I wonder aloud what the solution might be. “For the children there has to be school,” he answers, “and for the youth, some kind of work. If you do something constructive, you’ll be integrated. But if you stay without anything, you’ll always be a rebel. Far from everything.” Would he ever take up arms again? “No. That’s finished. Even if you get angry, it’s no solution. You have to learn to express what you feel without guns.”
Idle hands. Everyone here seems to agree that they’re at the root of the Sahara’s most urgent evils. An illicit opportunity is better than no opportunity at all and the dazzling sums of money offered by criminal traffickers and jihadi emirs are simply too great for the Sahara’s jobless youth to resist. But that youth has also been handed the torch of Tinariwen’s hopes and dreams. The guitar, a rare and exotic object in the desert when Ibrahim first picked it up in the late 1970s, is ubiquitous now. Young men, and women, from M’hamid to Timbuktu and beyond are singing songs of cultural pride and self-awareness. Tinariwen have spawned at least two new generations of poet guitarists wearing turbans, robes and rude-boy stares. Their songs taught the Touareg who they really were: no longer a collection of widely scattered tribes whose self-interest went no further than their patch of sand and rock or their ties of blood, but a people, a nation even, with a common destiny and a homeland, the Sahara, that needed to be protected and cherished at all costs.
The gist of those songs encompasses revolving themes and messages, delivered with a yearning insistence: Listen! Awake from your millennial isolation. There’s a world out there. You must find your place in it. Unify and stop your tribal in-fighting. The desert is dying of thirst. The young and the old are weeping. Protect them. But there was also a strain of profound elegy in their poetry, elegy for homeland, elegy for the campfire and the loved ones left behind, elegy for lost freedom. That elegy finds expression in one crucial word: assouf. Its two syllables require an entire prose poem in English to do them justice but, to be brief, assouf means homesickness, loss, longing, the pain that isn’t physical. You could call it the blues.
The Saharan youth of today still have their assouf, but it’s been filtered through different life experiences to the ones that Tinariwen’s founders lived forty years ago. In many cases, members of the younger generation have grown up one step removed from the old nomadic existence, in towns or cities, with radios, TVs, the Internet, and guitars readily available. From the moment of birth, they’ve been immersed in the poetry and melodies of Tinariwen. Their parents’ lives were ripped apart by war and exile and many of their elder bothers, uncles, and fathers were wounded or killed in the rebellions of the 1990s. But most younger Touareg musicians haven’t taken up arms themselves (unlike others of their generation who have joined the armed struggle in Northern Mali, or become embroiled in violent jihad). Nor have they crossed the desert on foot in search of work and opportunity. They see the struggle in different terms, and their songs reflect that. Education is now the banner word. But certain themes and moods persist: the need for unity, the need to preserve culture and develop self-awareness. And assouf – always assouf.
Sadam ag Ibrahim is the lead singer of Imarhan, who are here at Taragalte representing the new generation of Touareg guitar bands. He looks like a younger version of Ibrahim, same mane of frizzy hair, same diffident smile, same lanky frame. But his youth growing up in the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset was far removed for the raw desert wandering that characterised Ibrahim’s formative years. The mutual respect is palpable however.
“I always find that if you look behind any powerful music, you’ll find a big story,” Sadam says. “All great artists are like that. The Touareg suffered a lot. There were a lot of refugees because of the rebellions. That’s why the music of Tinariwen is so strong. But for us, the second generation, life is OK. There aren’t so many problems. Our music is good, but it doesn’t touch you so deeply. Not yet.”
Ibrahim is baffled by the way that Sadam’s generation have embraced the Internet. “The youth spend all their time looking [at those gadgets] but they do nothing with it afterwards,” he says with a chuckle. “When they speak, they understand everything. But they do nothing.” Yet despite the unimagined power and reach gifted by the web, the new generation is still grinding away at the same battles that Tinariwen fought thirty years ago, with perhaps a few modifications. The dream of an independent Touareg homeland in northern Mali, the country they call Azawad, is still strong. It’s just the means of acquiring it that are undergoing heartfelt revision. That combination of guitar and Kalashnikov, so appealing to the romantic sensibilities of some of Tinariwen’s western fans, is no longer deemed to be the solution. “The independence of Azawad is coming,” Sadam tells me. “That’s for sure – not today, not tomorrow or maybe the day after tomorrow, but one day. But it’s neither guns nor music that will bring make it happen. For that you need politics; you need the right leaders with the experience and education to find the right strategy. Today, guns get you nowhere.”
Perhaps every new Saharan generation is destined to take up arms in an attempt to make life with dignity possible and heal the wounds wrought by impassable frontiers and negligent governments. Perhaps guns, guitars AND education will all remain necessary, and aspirational, for many years to come. In M’hamid a group of boys with ages barely in double figures were inspired to form a band when they saw Tinariwen perform at the very first Taragalte Festival in 2009. Now they can play Tinariwen’s songs note for note and word for word, even though they don’t speak Tamashek, the language of the Touareg. They call themselves Les Jeunes Nomades.
“We can’t really explain why we love Tinariwen so much,” they tell me through an interpreter, excited and unruly during what must be one of their first ever interviews. “It’s as if their soul has impregnated us. Their music bewitches us.” And what about Ibrahim? He’s so much older than you. What do you see in him? “We appreciate him because he’s a mujahid…a fighter, a revolutionary. And his music soothes us because he talks about the youth, the desert and about revolution. We empathise with the suffering that exists where he comes from.”
This youthful respect for the ‘mujahid’ is guaranteed to alarm the older generation, which generally sees armed conflict as useless and aberrant. “I think the desert doesn’t allow for much violence and hostility,” Halim Sbai says, “because the desert is itself hostile in its nature. It doesn’t tolerate people who abuse it. We’re obliged to get on with each other. When all’s said and done, confronted by the desert, one feels small. The field of view is so vast, there’s always a void that one tries to fill.”
Tinariwen’s percussionist Sarid ag Ayad, who has never left his home town of Kidal in Northern Mali, apart from when he’s on tour, not even during the worst violence of the recent civil war, sees peace as a fundamental pre-requisite for life in the Sahara. It’s like water for the soul. “For me, the desert already has all the wealth it needs,” he says. “There’s nothing lacking except peace. The Touareg are so scattered but asked them anywhere what they desire and it’s peace and stability. With that they can achieve anything.”
There’s a consensus among most people I talk to at Taragalte: If the wider world, with its geo-political anxieties, its obsession with nation-states and frontiers, its lust for the natural resources that lie under the desert sands, would just let the Sahara be what is was designed to be – an open space of trade, cultural exchange and free movement, then Paradise might one day return.
It’s a boundless dream for a boundless place.
Bristol, March 2017.
© Andy Morgan. All rights reserved.