MUSIC, CULTURE & CONFLICT IN MALI (extract) – Tisrawt: The epic tale of a theatre company from northern Mali


[pp 202-208] “Tisrawt is a microcosm of Touareg society”

Masks are central to the work of the one of the most extraordinary theatre companies to have come into being in the years leading up to the great crisis of 2012. Called Tisrawt, it is remarkable because it was created by local Touareg actors in Kidal, right up in the heartlands of both the Touareg rebellion and the recent Islamist occupation. Tisrawt is the only theatre company that exists in the far north of Mali.

The genesis of Tisrawt is an epic tale in itself. Its origins go back to 2005, when a Parisian theatre company called La Calma specialising in street theatre and education was invited to Kidal to work with up to 70 local young people and develop their theatrical skills. The first fruit of their work was a programme of short masked sketches that were performed at the Saharan Nights Festival in es-Souk in January 2006. Es-Souk is a ruined city situated about 60 kilometres north of Kidal at the foot of the Tegharghar Mountains where, as I write, the French and Chadian armies are fighting a sustained and brutal battle against the remnants of the Islamist coalition that occupied Mali for ten months from April 2012. Guerrilla warfare aside, es-Souk a magical place and the sight of so many Kidalian youth, all masked, acting out often hilarious scenarios on subjects as diverse as education, health, pubic hygiene, insecurity and clandestine immigration amplified that magic exponentially. Music for the show was provided by the embryonic Touareg band Tamikrest, then still a year away from launching their international career.

After that inaugural project in 2006, the French actress and director Melissa Wainhouse, a long-standing member of La Calma, returned regularly to Kidal, despite the growing threat of kidnapping and always against the advice of the French foreign ministry. After 2009, the trip could only be made with an escort of bodyguards. She continued to develop short sketches with what had now become a solid core of actors from the Kidal region, both Touareg and Songhoi.

The murder of the British tourist Edwin Dyer by Abou Zeid and his AQIM militia in June of 2009 impregnated the entire northern two thirds of Mali with a heightened sense of danger and paranoia. 2010 was in effect the year that the region shut down to the outside world. Nonetheless, in January 2010, Wainhouse and the players from Tisrawt managed to defy the cowering zeitgeist and perform at the Camel Festival in Tessalit, a beautiful village in the far north east of Mali up by the Algerian border. They also travelled to the Festival in the Desert in Essakane. This was to be Melissa’s last visit to the Kidal region before the Islamist occupation of 2012.

Nonetheless, as far as Melissa was concerned, being barred from Tisrawt’s home region wasn’t reason enough to shelve the whole project. “The only solution was for the actors themselves to come to Bamako,” she told me in September 2012. “It isn’t an easy task to transport six people from Kidal to Bamako, to house them, feed them and create the right conditions for working.” And it wasn’t just the logistics that were challenging; it was the novelty of the project itself. “There are no Touareg actors apart from ours and no Touareg theatre troupe apart from Tisrawt,” Melissa told me. “But because we were extremely persistent and desirous of success, bit by bit, there was a gathering awareness amongst Touareg leaders and notables of the importance of the work of these young people and what it meant symbolically, even if the troupe wasn’t on a professional level yet. It was too early to talk about professionalism but the very fact that these young Kidalois were getting involved and setting themselves the goal of transmitting messages in French and Tamashek through theatre, messages of peace, was important enough in itself.”

Whilst the north degenerated into a lawless playground for mafia business and Salafists with AK47s, Tisrawt tackled issues such as trafficking, crime and banditry. At the end of one particular sketch that revolved around these themes, the players would turn to their audience and declare that it was up to them, the Touareg, the northerners, to preserve and value their own culture. It was up to the teenagers and parents of teenagers in the audience to make sure that smuggling and crime didn’t destroy society itself. That sketch was performed at the inauguration of the Biennale Artistique et Culturelle in Sikasso in 2010, in front of President Amadou Toumani Touré and a large gathering of dignitaries.

In 2011, Tisrawt received funding from Norwegian Church Aid (AEN) to prepare a new show that would tour the three regions of the north; Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. A programme of writing, rehearsals and workshops was organised in Bamako, involving professional actors and technicians from La Calma. The ambition was to take Tisrawt to a new level of proficiency and give them the impetus and know-how to carry on developing their art on their own. Nevertheless, with the tumultuous build up to the outbreak of hostilities in northern Mali in January 2012, the tour, which was due to visit schools, cultural centres and festivals in the north, never happened.

The scuppering of Tisrawt’s first opportunity to do a well- funded and well-prepared tour was a severe blow. The group had been gearing up to tackling the hardest topic of all; religious extremism. But in the end, with the cancellation of the tour, the opportunity passed. When I spoke to Melissa in September 2012, she was getting ready to go back to Bamako to start a new project with the troupe. Religious extremism was still on top of the list of potential themes for the next phase of work. “Will we tackle the subject of Islamism? Right now I can’t say yes or no. It will really depend on the members of the troupe. Luckily theatre allows us to deal with subjects in a symbolic or transposed way, but having said that, the subject is so sensitive. The most important thing for me is not to put them in any danger.”

The outbreak of rebellion in January 2012 turned Tisrawt upside down. “In a profound way it was a complete shock,” according to Melissa. “Some of the actors took refuge in Bamako and were living a very precarious situation there. Some stayed in Kidal, and were probably caught up in the reality of what was going on. They were sucked into that spiral. I think that right now [ed. September 2012] the youth up there in the north have a very stark choice. If they stay they are forced to ally themselves to one or other of the various movements. Some just don’t have the means or the opportunity to leave, because families can’t go with them for diverse reasons. You have to realise that this youth wasn’t old enough to have been combatants in the rebellion of the 1990s. They were children at the time, but they have been soaked in that whole climate, a climate in which taking up arms has always been a noble act. That is very cultural with the Tamashek. But what’s incredible is that I’m in touch with all of them. I’ve managed to gather my troupe together and all of them tell me that their aim, their only glimmer of hope, is the work of the company.”

It was the actors themselves who urged Melissa to let them go and perform in the refugee camps in front of people who have been driven from their homes by the conflict. “Their aim is to make them laugh, to bring them hope and given them a feeling of solidarity and to value their culture, which is in extreme danger right now.”

So, in an indistinct fog of crisis and instability, Melissa gathered her players together in Bamako in November 2012 and started work on a new piece called Tisrawt “Le Royaume d’Idjirane”. It was about a king who considers himself to be a good king. His motto is “Each man for himself, and everyone for the king.” Nonetheless, there’s trouble ahead. Drought descends and the harvests are bad. The royal council is convened to try and sort out the crisis. One day a stranger called Albana (‘Misfortune’ in Tamashek) arrives and announces that a spring called ‘Goulou Goulou’ is situated right there, under the king’s throne. He sows calamity and chaos by pitting one person against the other and manipulating the king. His aim is to make the riches of the kingdom his own. Tisrawt was a star attraction at the 2012 Festival des Théatre de Réalités in Bamako.

“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.”

The Tisrawt threat group is just a beginning, albeit a powerful and promising one. The actors are learning their trade. They’re hacking a new trail. “You know, new Touareg bands have it much easier because Tinariwen have already opened up and mapped out the onward path,” Melissa said. “They’re examples, sentinels, who have reached at least some of their goals. For my actors that doesn’t exist yet. They don’t have a culture of the theatre. They don’t have access to everything that we have access to here in Europe; festivals, books, films. I have to operate at their rhythm. And I’m there, their mother, their sister and their teacher. I’m also their artistic director and I’m determined not to let them become the instrument of another person or entity, nor of the chaos the political chaos that the country is in right now.”

Heroism is a loud word. It becomes more dignified in its quiet, barely visible incarnations. That quiet heroism exists everywhere, in Mali too, abundant in its obscurity. The quiet courage and dedication of people like Adama Traore, Melissa Wainhouse and the actors in Tisrawt and all the many other small theatre troupes in the country is keeping discourse, culture, education, entertainment and hope alive.

Theatre, in its simplest incarnations at least, costs relatively little. That’s why it has power as folk art and as a simple means of bringing problems out into the open where they can be discussed, understood and possibly tackled. In a country like Mali, a country that urgently needs to speak to itself and make its wiser voice heard over the white noise of fear and revenge, theatre is no longer a mere cultural delicacy. It has become essential.


Taken from the book Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali by Andy Morgan (Freemuse Publications)

(c) Andy Morgan / Freemuse Publications 2013

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