Make Music not War, Tuareg music festival
Independent, March 2001
A mass of veiled tribesman, their heads sweathed in indigo, sat squatting on the sandfloor of the desert valley. The horizon to the north and south was obscured by a low range of black-rock hills lit up by the astonishingly bright constellation of stars. Tonight they had no competition for the moon was still partially eclipsed though all eyes were directed on the make shift sand stage of the festival, where a kneeling dancer from Timbuctoo was flirting outrageously with her hands. The audience was rigid with attention at her movements, and their massed bodies kept at bay the full force of the icy desert wind.
We were deep in Tuareg country, in the Adrar des Iforhas, one of the four ancient kingdoms of the Tuareg confederacy that once ruled the central Sahara. None of these four Tuareg regions (Hoggar, Air, Ténéré and the Adrar) are independent states anymore and they all now exist as apendages to larger nation states, such as Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mauritania and Mali. Many of the Tuareg communities have adapted well to this pattern of events though Mali's Adrar region is not one of them. In the last thrity years it has witnessed rebellion, drought, repression and revolt. The embers of the recent revolt, which also engulfed the Tuareg of northern Niger, are still glowing.
The festival was a brave and bold gesture, staged deep within Mali's troublesome northern province. It was modelled on the Takubelt, the old annual gathering of the Tuareg. It was a long way to come. I had been travelling by land for five days. As I spread out my well-worn Michelin map of north-west Africa I saw that the festival site of Tin-Eassako was right plonk in the middle of the continent.
None of the oil wealth of neighbouring Algeria has trickled down here. The Tuareg of northern Mali remain true to their ancient nomadic traditions based around herding flocks of goats and camels. This is not a lifestyle decision, its a matter of survival. What cash enters the local economy comes from the central government, the foreign aid agencies or migrant workers sneding funds back to their family. A black economy also exists throughout the Sahara based on the smuggling of cigarettes to the north and of stolen cars to the south. Weapons are hard currency.
We were staying with 'Sheikh", a nephew of one of the paramount Tuareg tribal chiefs. Sheikh was a tall, imposing and totally charming man, always in demand as a local arbitrator. He had met his wife Carolyn, an American-born UN official, whilst working with refugees in Bosnia but was now back in his own country working as a travel agent.
The night before the festival we had camped out on the flat rooftop of Sheikh's house. From here you could look out over the walled mud-brick compounds of Kidal. This Saharan town is the self-proclaimed capital of Tuareg-populated northern Mali. It's the only place I've ever seen to use Tifinagh, the ancient Berber alphabet derived from the Phoencians. However even in their provincial 'capital' the Tuareg are conspicuous by their absence for they prefer to remain desert-dwelling herdsman. Outside of market day the sand streets of Kidal are dominated by bored members of the military garrison while the stalls in the souk are run by Arab-speaking Moors.
Only a week before our arrival, a Saharan information sheet had reported that "a military operation to flush out armed bandits from the northern Malian region of Kidal was underway" and that "an unspecified number of wounded being taken to hospital". These warnings were backed up by an e-mail from an archaeologist. Even the authorative Bradt guide to Mali chimed in, when it described Kidal "as a popular place to send political prisoners...an isolated and inhospitable corner of Mali... where hardly anything grows and hardly anyone goes." With each warning, Kidal's appeal had of course grown stronger.
When we first approached the region, driving north from Gao and the river Niger, the military checkpoints had steadily increased. Armoured cars patrolled the approaches to town, while a squad of jeeps with machine guns was parked outside Kidal's one hotel and fit young men with dark glasses and machine pistols stood around the doorway. The Prime Minister of Mali, the Minister of Culture and Tourism, the speaker, the ambassadors of France, Canada, Germany and the USA were all in town. There was even a rumour that the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg would soon arrive.
Everyone was heading for the annual Turaeg desert festival, but aside from officials, aid workers and the odd French film crew our group of three were the only bona fide tourists. We had Kidal's Tuareg artisans, its food market and its domed library, even the pet crocodile of the Foreign Legion (still fed by a monthly pay cheque unfailing despatched from Marseille) to ourselves.
The festival site was a half day's drive further into the Sahara towards the frontier with Niger. We had each picked up a different story: that it was the first festival to be held, that it was an annual event, that it was specifically Malian, that it was for all the Tuareg throughout the Sahara and that it was a French musical event. All we could agree on was the importance of a picnic and siesta stop.
At midday our two Tuareg drivers brought us to Tamaradant, an old drystone fortress perched on a massive black granite boulder, the largest of a thousand such rounded forms that litter this part of the desert. It has been deserted for centuries and there is not a flicker of ruin-waste or ceramic sherd by which to date it. By their stories it is considered to be an outlying cistern-fortress of the great Saharan trading city of Tadamakat, whose last Queen, Sataunata, lies buried amongst her legendary treasure. All around Tamaradant there is treasure of a different sort: hundreds of rock engravings (red scarred stone etched onto the sunbaked black surface) of warriors, plump horses, one humped camels and long trails of Tifinagh script, snaking across the rounded boulders like some perfect concrete verse. Some rock engravings are considered to be neolithic but these were plainly historic, for the horse came to the Sahara around 1,200 BC while the camel was not successfully bred in the desert until around the birth of Christ. Drunk with art, midday heat and isolation we lay in the shade watching Musta and Ousmane prepare a thick meat stew into which ash-baked unleavened bread was crumbled.
The first night of the Tuareg festival there was a total eclipse of the moon. Lojo, a French group whose music is strongly influenced by that of Mali and North Africa, had decided to repay their debt, by playing for free to this desert audience and organising the logistics for a three day concert. I do not know what it was like to be playing at such a time, and at such a place, but it was chillingly full of wonder to be one of the spectators. The ambassadors and ministers were given a line of low chairs, surrounded by a sea of young Tuareg men, a marvellous pool of dark blue and indigo cloth. The tribal chiefs, who by some trick of their noble warrior ancestry were all of a towering build, wore complicated layers of starched kaftans, their turbans and mouth veils arranged with delicate precision. There was no longer any need for the flashy security concerns of yesterday, for the 'bandits' now seemed to be a very central part of the festival. Indeed one of the most renowned of the guerilla bands had reformed themselves into the Tinariwen musical group. They played later that evening, after the Tuareg women of Tessalit had filled the desert night with their mesmerising chants and ulullations. There was nothing studied about the heroic stance, the grief of their lyrics or the raw aggression of their sound. They sung of the poverty of their lives and the harsh unbending dictats of existence in the great desert. They sung of the even greater pain that came from exile from this terrible but cherished homeland. Standing at the back of the group for most of the session, though he was pushed forward with loud applause for the last two songs, was Kimber. This tall, thin, almost shy man with a quiet amused smile seldom far from his face, is one of the heroic fighters of the recent rebellion and was before that a renowned smuggler. It is said that he has 20 bullet wounds on his body.
Apart from the stage, a big white meeting tent and a double line of traditional leather nomad tents that had been pitched for the musicians, the festival didn't really exist as a distinctive space. The Tuareg audience only really came together for the music filled night. They preferred to camp a mile or more from the festival ground in scattered kinship groups. We settled happily into this system, sleeping on the sand beside a distinctive rock that was lit up at evening when our dinner was cooked. In the midday we moved to have lunch and a siesta in the shade of a big thorn tree. We made Tamasheq word lists with the help of our guides, talked to them about the ease of divorce and the search for love.
While most of the audience was dozing away the midday heat there was some serious political bargaining going on in the white meeting tent. The central government was offering to release money that had been pledged by various foreign agencies in return for the surrender of Tuareg arms. This soon settled down to specific deals. One clan were being asked to hand over ten Kalashnikov's and a thousand rounds in exchange for a new well and a small herd of camels to replace the losses of the war years. Only then would the last of the Tuareg's sitting it out in refugee camps in Algeria have something to return to. In key moments of grid lock, a minister might throw in the offer of a new school or the Grand Duchess might offer another 'quatre milliards'.
A similar process was happening in the tent of the French musicians. Huddled in a far corner was Justin Adams, a quiet spoken English soloist who helped Lojo create their last album and had come to play tracks from his new Desert Road album. He had reluctantly assumed the role of chief arbitrator having successfuly organised the recovery of the musical equipment that had 'disappeared' on their very first day in Kidal. His sleeping mat became the arbitration centre for rival claims of precedence within the groups of Tuareg musicians, as well as their brother guests from Niger and Senegal. He trod a firm but respectful line with the various Griot from Gao and Timbuktu, for no-one in their right mind wanted to anger this hereditary caste of musicians, reknowned for the power of their curse.
One morning we were summoned to a traditional Tuareg mumming play by the deep boom of a muffled kettle-drum. They acted out the simple hunting life of their ancestors before they acquired herds of goats and camels, wearing a curious white goatskin mask. At dusk two knots of tam-tam playing and ululating Tuareg women, gradually drew from the landscape over fifty mounted Tuareg camelteers, man and beast wearing their finest robes, indigo turbans and saddle cloths. Each competed to ride his camel to the exact beat of the women's drums, criss-crossing in an intricate figure of eight round the two blue groups of women. In the slanting light of a desert sunset one could only grin with pleasure at the pride of these, the last surviving lords of the desert.
Barnaby Rogerson travelled with Albee Yend of the Art of Travel, The Travel House, 51 Castle Street, Cirencester, Gloucestershire GL7 1QD. Tel 01285-650011, fax 10285-885888, e-mail "firstname.lastname@example.org"
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by Barnaby Rogerson