It was while watching the DVD documentary Palace Of The Winds that I first really started to see the similarities between the situation facing the Tuareg of the Sahara, indigenous peoples in North and South America, and Australia. While all of them are dealing with poverty, institutionalized racism, and the gradual erosion of traditional territories in the face of encroaching civilization and the exploitation of natural resources, the biggest cause of friction between them and the rest of the world, is their desire to be left alone to live their lives as they have for longer then many of our so called societies have even existed.
Unfortunately there's always some reason why it's vitally important to interfere with a people's lives and the Tuareg of North Africa, especially in Niger, have been learning about that the hard way in recent years. When uranium was discovered in the Agadez region of the country the usual promises were made guaranteeing them economic benefits from the mining operations and the protection of their traditional way of life. As detailed in the film Ishumar, les Rockers Oublies du Desert (Ishumar, The Forgotten Rockers Of The Desert) by French director Francois Bergeron, all the people of the region have seen so far is an increase in cancer and birth defects among those living close to the mining operation.
None of the economic benefits promised have been fulfilled, and even jobs in the mines are being filled by outsiders. In 2007 the situation came to a head again with uprisings in both Mali and Niger, with Agadez and uranium being the hot spot in Niger. Peace talks brokered by Libya in May of 2009 appear to have brought a level of calm to the area again, but the government is also going ahead with the construction of what is being billed as the largest uranium mine in the world and there is no word on whether or not the conditions that gave rise to the rebellion in the first place have been addressed.
What, you might be wondering does all of this have to do with a review of a CD? Well since the uprisings of the 1980's, music has played a major role in the Tuareg rebellions through the messages of hope and resistance it spread throughout the region. A sign of how effective they were is that the first cassettes issued by the now internationally renowned band Tinariwen were banned by the Niger and Malian governments and owning them was a criminal offence. In 2007 when the next wave of rebellion started up, new voices were singing out for justice for their people, and at the forefront were Group Bombino and their recording Guitars From Agadez Vol.2.
Originally released as an LP, its now been re-issued as a CD on the Sublime Frequencieslabel. The music on this release was recorded in 2007 just as the rebellion was taking hold. A year later the leader of the group Omara Mochtar (Bombino) was in exile in places unknown, Agadez was cut off from the rest of Niger by land mines and the only way in and out of the town was by military escort. Like many of Sublime Frequencies recordings, Guitars From Agadez Vol. 2 was not recorded in a studio, but on location with the performers in various locales. In this case the first four tracks of the CD are from the bands archives, while the last five were recorded live in the desert in 2007 by field recorder Hisham Mayet.
Mochtar, who was born in 1981, like other Tuareg musicians of his generation, makes no secret of the influence bands like Tinariwen and the others from the first musical uprising have had on him. Listening to the songs on this disc you'll hear the familiar hypnotic guitar work that has come to be emblematic of the Tuareg sound. However, it's how Mochtar and Group Bombino use that as a foundation for their own creations that makes them so riveting. The first four tracks are much what we've come to expect from the music of the desert, with the voices and the guitars creating an almost trance like state while the rhythm seductively sways like solitary trees caught in a desert wind.
It's when we hit the live recordings though that Mochtar starts to show his distinctive style as he seems to feed off the energy of the desert. His guitar seems to take on a life of its own, unloading bursts of energy that sear the night air and shoot up like sparks from an exploding log in a fire. While there aren't any accompanying lyric sheets for this disc, let alone translations into English, there's an unmistakable message being delivered by the music. There's a raw, almost primal energy being unleashed during these five tracks that speaks of freedom and independence in a way that doesn't need to be translated. This isn't music that's going to make you feel particularly safe, but than again there's nothing safe about true freedom. Never the less the chills this music sends up your spine aren't from fright, their caused by the excitement of knowing there are still those out there pushing to live on their own terms, not what's dictated to them by others.
If there's anything that scares oppressive regimes it's people who dare to defy them by advocating truth and freedom. In 2007 when the Tuareg were taking up arms against the Niger government newspapers reporting on the rebels were being shut down by the police and the military. While a peace accord signed in May of this year ended open hostilities and a journalist imprisoned for over a year on charges of sedition for reporting on the Tuareg rebellion has been released, the Niger government has been cracking down on civil protest against corruption through arrests and intimidation.
The environment in Niger doesn't look like it's going to be getting any healthier for the Tuareg anytime soon, and bands like Group Bombino face real danger as long they continue to speak out on behalf of their people. As the liner notes for the CD say - this is the music of the rebellion, and you can hear that in every note they play and every word they sing.
(Originally posted October 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.