To most of us the desert looks to be an inhospitable land, devoid of life. You wouldn't think to look at it that anything could survive out there let alone humans and their herds of goats and camels. Yet for generations that's exactly what the Tuareg people have done in the Northern Sahara desert. In a territory that stretches from present day Algeria in the north to what is now Niger in the south they have moved with their flocks from watering hole to watering hole, and followed the changing of the seasons in search of grazing land for their herds.
It was the coming of the colonial masters that began the troubles for the Tuareg. They created the borders that divided the desert into artificial segments. However the end of colonial rule in the early 1960's didn't do anything to improve their lot and 1963 saw the first of the Tuareg uprisings. The government of Niger began a systematic campaign of terror and persecution against the Tuareg, and they responded by taking up arms against them. However they were ill equipped to combat a modern army, and many were forced to flee to the north. Among those refugees was a young Ibrahim Ag Ahabib, whose memories of the trek include his grandfather dying on the forced march.
Like many young Tuareg of that generation, Ahabib, were involved in the next Tuareg uprising in the 1980's. However it wasn't only a gun he learned how to use in the training camps of Libya where the Tuareg received their training. He, and others, began to play guitar, and give voice to the dreams and aspirations of the rebellion through songs. Mixing popular music from the west, specifically the guitar driven music of Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, with their people's traditional sound, they recorded cassettes of music that were distributed throughout the Tuareg territories. While the governments of Niger and Mali quickly made their music illegal, it didn't stop the messages of hope and pride from being spread among the people. While he has long since put down his gun to focus on his music, Ahabib and the band he leads, Tinariwen, continue to sing about the life of the Tuareg, only now their audience has expanded to include the rest of the world.
On their latest release, Imidiwan: Companions on the World Village out October 13th/09, they have also included a DVD containing a documentary about the making of the recording directed by Jessy Nottola. Up until now Tinariwen have had to travel to Europe in order to make their CDs, but this time they were able to ensure that the recording studio came to them. As a result the film isn't just of musicians setting up in some arid studio to record tracks, it follows the band to some of their favourite places in the Malian part of the Sahara desert. These are places where they have sat, played and sung to the desert and the stars throughout the night in the past. The places where the heart and soul of not only the music, but also, the Tuareg, reside.
While six of the fourteen songs on the disc are composed by Ibrahim Ag Ahabib, song writing duties are now split up amongst more members of the band then they seem to have been in the past. Yet no matter who writes, or for that matter performs, a song, they are all equally powerful in the emotional pull they are able to exert upon us while we listen. The guitars are the focal point, whether acoustic or electric, as they provide the energy that fuels a song. They are an insistent thrum of sound which increases and decreases in volume through out the course of a song creating peaks and valleys much like the desert itself is crested with dunes and dotted with hidden bowls excavated by ages of wind eroding rock.
It's in one of these bowls, surrounded by walls of rock, that we watch the band set up to record on the DVD. A lone figure swathed in blue robes, head wrapped to protect the face and skull from the heat and sand, sets down a stone and carefully counts off paces in four directions placing another stone at the terminus of each count. He then gradually forms a large circle out of rocks in amongst the boulders strewn on the canyon floor. Gradually, on camel, and in four wheel drive vehicles, the rest of the band and the equipment arrive and are established within the circle. As the day loses its heat and light, the band begin to play, and the setting sun paints the rocks around them orange to match the fires they will soon light to keep off the cool of a desert night.
The lyrics they sing are in the language of their people, Tamashek, and although we can't understand what they are saying, their sound combined with the guitar and the steady beat of the drum and bass, are quickly mesmerizing. You can't help but be caught up in the wash of sound, but at the same time there's an urgency to the sound of their vocals that makes you strain to understand on any level what it is they're saying. Interspersed through the song is the occasional sound of the women background singers creating the undulating sound the women of the desert have used to denote moments of high emotion for centuries. I defy anyone not to feel a chill run up your spin upon hearing the trembling high pitched voices raised as a kind of exclamation point to the lyrics that proceeded them.
The booklet accompanying the disc has the lyrics for each song written out in both Tamashek, transcribed into our alphabet, and English. While we can hunt among the lyrics for some clues as to what the songs are about and for insights into the people who are singing them, even in English the meanings can be oblique. For the songs talk about matters that are specific to the people of the desert. However there are still nuggets of information the translations provide us with. For example Imazeghen (pronounced Im-Az-Arr-En) is the collective noun the Tuareg use to refer to themselves, as Tuareg is an Arabic word imposed on them by outsiders. So the song titled "Imazeghen N Adagh" (pronounced Ad-Arr) is about the people from the region in Mali, Adagh, where Tinariwen come from. It's a simple call to stand up and be recognized. To look around themselves and instead of being confused and overwhelmed, to remember who they are. "You don't understand the confidence you possess/Once you rode upon the camel's saddle".
There has been a disturbing tendency to romanticize the Imazeghen of the Sahara which does them a horrible disservice. As recently as a few months ago armed rebellion had broken out again in both Niger and Mali as they continue to fight to preserve their way of life and be given the freedom to chose how to live. Territory that was given them by treaty is being taken away as uranium deposits are discovered under the sands of the desert in Niger. Newspapers writing articles supportive of their plight are closed down by the government while activists and sympathizers are arrested on charges of sedition and terrorism. Tinariwen's songs aren't about something that happened to the people in the past, they are about a people's fight for survival in the face of a world that doesn't look like it has room for them anymore.
Listening to Imidiwan- Companions one can't help feel the world would be a lot emptier without people who feel as deeply about their way of life and their land as these people do. Is our need for uranium that great that we need to destroy a civilization that can produce music like this? It would be a great pity if we let the answer be yes.
(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.