I've always found it ironic that countries that aren't one people, like the United States (What's an American look like anyway?) are called a nation, when nations that are one people have no land they can call their own. In North America alone there are hundreds of nations without their own land to control and similar situations exist the world over. When the European nations carved up Africa between themselves they did so with no regard to traditional national boundaries.
One result of this artificial delineation have been the various conflicts between ethnic groups that has scared Africa since the 1960's and culminated in the horror that was the genocide in Rwanda. While nothing comes close to matching ethnic violence in terms of human suffering, the impact of creating countries based on nothing more than convenience has been felt across the continent. Some of those most drastically affected have been the nomadic peoples that travelled the deserts as much a part of the natural rhythm of the land as the turning of the seasons.
The Tuareg people of the Sahara followed routes that now cross the borders of five countries; Libya, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Algeria. In the early 1990's the Tuareg finally had enough and began an uprising that only ended in 2001 with the election of governments in Mali and Algeria that have proven more responsive to their plight. Moussa Ag Keyna was fifteen when he joined the uprising. But a bullet wound and the assassination of his rebellion chief (also his uncle) sent him into exile in France in 1995.
He had bought a guitar and was set to form a band with friends and cousins when the war had broken out in 1990. It was in France that he decided to pick up his guitar again, and continue the fight for his people in a non-violent way. In music he saw the opportunity to tell the world about his people and their circumstances. Although the shooting has stopped the war is far from over, as the Tuareg's territory is coveted by the various governments for the natural resources, uranium, oil, and gold, hidden beneath the sand.
Along with his cousin, Aminatou Goumar, Moussa formed Toumast. While he is the lead vocalist and guitar player, she supplies guitar, vocals and spine chilling vocal ululation that can only be experienced and not described. Already they have had success playing in festivals and clubs around Europe and their first CD is being released in North America March 14th 2008 on Real World Records.
The CD's title, Ishumar, is the name that was given to the displaced young men of the Tuareg who had to leave in order to search for work during the droughts and famines of the 1970s and 1980s that plagued the Sahara. Unable to travel with the freedom of the past, they were left with no other recourse but to go into exile in the cities of Libya and Algeria.
It's not surprising given the title of the album that so much of the music on Ishumar is given over to songs that reflect displacement and loss. While a song entitled "These Countries That Are Not Mine" is an obvious reference to a life in exile, "The Falcon" and "My Camel" may not have you making the same connection without understanding the lyrics, which makes the English translations included very useful.
Both "The Falcon" and "The Camel" express the exile's yearning for home in his desire for the things that defined life among his people. "I know what my soul wants" is the opening line of "The Camel", and it continues to narrate the life of a nomadic herdsman; "To follow the drums in the desert/That echo in the valley". Listening to that lyric and visualizing the open expanses of the Sahara, makes you think about what it must have been like for people to come from that to living within the confines of a city and how trapped that must have made them feel.
Aside from songs about exile, Moussa has also written songs reminding his people of what they fought for, and now, just because the shooting has stopped they can't let it slip away. "Hey! My brothers/Don't forget/The causes you have defended/Hey! My brothers/Blood has been shed". Peace might have come to the lands of the Tuareg but it will be for naught if they forget about what has happened and the reality of the hardships their people still face.
While Moussa and Aminatou are the primary members of Toumast, they are joined on Ishumar by other musicians to round out the sound. Foremost among them is their producer Dan Levy who aside from taking care of the arrangements, recording and mixing of the disc also plays everything from bass to soprano saxophone. He has done a fine job of creating a two layered effect with the music. While the vocals and guitars of Moussa and Aminatou tell the stories of the songs, the other instruments create a nearly hypnotic atmosphere.
Drums, percussion, and on one occasion strings, combine to create a melodic rhythm that, if you allow it, transports you into their world when combined with the sound of their voices. Guitar and the ululating of Aminatou create a strange otherworldly harmony that reminds you they are singing of a world we know nothing about, and assists in carrying us to the desert. Even without understanding the lyrics, the music speaks volumes. There is something about it that communicates the emotions hidden within the mysteries of their language.
Ishumar is a haunting disc, redolent with the sense of loss felt by a displaced people while at the same time declaring their determination not to be pushed aside and become another one of the forgotten peoples. This is a beautiful and haunting CD that deserves to be listened to for the wonder that it evokes and the message that it carries. This is the voice of a people that deserves to be heard.
(Originally posted March 2008)
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.