When the annual Festival Au Desert in Northern Mali was cancelled in 2013 due to the territory’s occupation by terrorist organizations intent on imposing a very narrow definition of Islamic rule, organizers of the Festival were determined, if the world couldn’t come to them, to bring the music of the Festival to the world. Formed in 2001 the Festival takes place during the traditional Tuareg (or Kel Tamasheq as they call themselves) annual gatherings called Takoubelt in Kidal or Temakannit in Timbuktu. Initially a celebration of Malian and Kel Tamasheq music and culture it has since expanded to include performers from around the world. The modern festival was created to help promote the arts and culture of the region and commemorate the 1996 peace treaty between the Kel Tamasheq people and the Malian government which ended nearly 30 years of sporadic rebellions.
For more then a thousand years, the nomadic Kel Tamasheq have either been caravan leaders or herds-people crisscrossing the Sahara desert from Algeria in the north to Niger in the south. The end of colonial rule in the early 1960s, while meaning independence for some, saw the Kel Tamasheq begin losing access to their traditional territories and, as a result, their way of life was threatened. Since then, the expansion of cities and the encroachment of environment destroying uranium mining into the desert has made their situation more and more precarious. While armed uprisings and peace treaties between them and various governments in the region have occasionally bought them some breathing room, they have also been targeted for reprisals and attacks when governments decide to ignore the terms of the peace treaties when they become inconvenient.
After the rebellions of the early 1990s many of the rebels put down their weapons and picked up musical instruments instead. Through music they hoped to provide the means of keeping their culture alive by telling the traditional tales of the people through song and singing about the beauty of desert life. They also hoped to be able to raise awareness in the world beyond the Sahara of their situation. While many of the bands adopted modern instruments to play songs about traditional themes, primarily electric guitars, and were heavily influenced by the blues based music of American and British pop, some have retained more of the traditional elements of Kel Tamashek music.
Normally the latter aren’t heard as much in North America. However, thanks to the efforts of Chris Nolen, an American volunteer member of the Festival’s board of directors and his newly formed Clermont Music label we now have a chance to hear performances like the one given by Tartit With Imharhan at the last Festival Au Desert on the CD Live From The Sahara.
Tartit are a group of five women who both follow and defy traditions for woman’s music among their people. For while they employ the instruments normally used by women, the Tinde (a hand drum) and the Imzad (a violin) they also play the Tehardent, a stringed guitar like instrument, normally only played by men. For this concert, recorded live at the Festival Au Desert 2012, they were joined on stage by Imharhan, a band who have adopted the more conventional instruments of pop music. The first six songs on the disc are Tartit performing on their own. People familiar with the music of other groups from this region will notice some very sizeable differences in both their sound and the overall feeling of the music. The sound is rawer and far more, for lack of a better word, tribal, than the guitar oriented bands. Voice and percussion are what we notice the most, and the vocals are more along the lines of chanting then actual singing.
Naturally they sing in their own language, but the liner notes for the disc provide a description of the song’s content, so we can at least appreciate what they are singing about. For instance in track one, “Dehebo” a man describes his love for a woman through the many things he loves about his people. In the Kel Tamasheq culture the women traditionally are considered the preservers of the culture and responsible for ensuring future generations learn the laws and responsibilities of what it means to be one of the people. In this song they use the conventions of a love song to tell their listeners what they think are the most important characteristics of their nation.
The third song, “Abacabok”, is actually the first of two parts, its continued in track seven. It is dedicated to their great grandfather, a Sufi mystic, who had retreated from society to devote his life to his faith. In this song they talk about how their religion needs people like him. The description included says, thanks to this piece he returns to society. Now obviously they’re not trying to bring the dead back to life, but they are invoking his spirit to remind people of the beauty of faith and Islam is not the religion of violence and oppression some have tried to turn it into.
It’s for the second part of “Abacabok” Imharhan join Tartit on stage. All of a sudden a song played with the sparse accompaniment of percussion and non-amplified string instruments has its sound swelled by the inclusion of electric guitars and male voices. What was once a history lesson now becomes something which sounds like they are challenging their people to live up to the example set by the great-grandfather named in the song.
It is perhaps fitting the final song on the disc, track nine Aicha Talammomt, is a solo performance by the male led Imharhan. For this is a song about the women of their people. Its lyrics describe them as the image of beauty, nobility and the source of all quality in the their culture. It continues saying a people without culture are a people without a face. While the face of the Kel Tamasheq the majority of world sees has been of the men, the men are the first to admit it’s the women who have been holding their people together through fifty years of strife. They are the ones who have suffered the most because of the wars and droughts the Sahara region has endured during this time.
Playing this song during what has been a traditional gathering time for all the Kel Tamasheq is Imharhan’s way of reminding their people of the importance of women to their culture. It also serves to warn of the danger their entire people face when the women are threatened or unable to live their lives in the way they should. With it being played on modern instruments, the band is not only reaching out to people of their own generation, they are talking to younger people as well in an attempt to keep these traditions alive. Unlike a lot of Western pop music, people don’t just listen to the music and ignore the words of a song. Coming from a long history of griots – singers who can recount tribal and family histories – they are used to hearing and absorbing what’s sung to them. So when a band like Imharhan sing, their audience will enjoy dancing to their music, but they will also listen to their words and remember them.
One thing you will notice is the quality of this recording isn’t the greatest, even as live concerts go. However, you have to understand this concert was recorded outside in the Sahara desert under less than ideal conditions. Although the conflict in Northern Mali didn’t start until a month after the Festival Au Desert 2012 was over, there were already worries about terrorist attacks and safety issues they hadn’t had to deal with in previous years. This was on top of the normal logistical problems of holding a concert at least a two hour drive outside of Timbuktu in the desert. It’s remarkable there’s a record of any kind from this festival.
When the armies of Islam came down into North Africa nearly a thousand years ago the fiercest resistance they met was from the tribes of Berber descended nomads. They named them Tuareg – rebels against Islam – in reference to both their abilities as fighters and their determination to hold onto their own culture. A thousand years later they are still demonstrating those same traits. They may have changed their approach, using music instead of weapons, but they continue to fight for their survival even as the forces arrayed against them seem to increase all the time. Live From The Sahara, featuring the music of Tartit and Imhahan, is a great example of how the battle is being fought.
(For those interested in reading more about the situation in Northern Mali and the Kel Tamasheq in general check out Andy Morgan’s web site, Andy Morgan Writes. Morgan was the band Tinariwen’s manager for seven years and has lived among the Kel Tamasheq extensively. He has also written a wonderful book about the events of the past year called Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali which is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the region.)
(Note on spellings: As the Tamasheq language uses non-Roman script translating is a rather fluid practice based on sound rather a literal transcribing. I’ve seen Tamasheq spelt as Tamashek and Tuareg as Touareg. I’ve elected to use the first spelling of each word, but either way is equally correct as far as I know)