Desert rebels swap AKs for guitars

A hero of the “Ishumar”, a generation of frustrated desert youths bent on revolt, he was shot 17 times fighting for greater freedom for Tuareg nomads in Mali and Niger.

More than a decade on, the band Tinariwen he formed with fellow desert outlaws is still fighting the Tuareg cause, using haunting Saharan poetry and electric guitars to tell audiences around the world of an ancient and threatened nomadic culture.

“Tinariwen was born of the spirit of rebellion,” Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, guitarist, lyricist and singer with the award-winning group said by phone during a tour in Sweden.

“The music keeps the same spirit: passing on the message. Before, the spirit was to inform the Tuaregs about their own situation. Today it is to make the whole world aware,” he said.

The colonial carve-up of Africa put borders through the Saharan caravan routes the light-skinned Tuaregs had worked for hundreds of years, dividing them up between Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad to the south and Algeria and Libya to the north.

Fiercely proud of their centuries-old independence from outsiders, the turban-clad nomads staged revolts in the 1960s and 1990s in Mali and Niger for more autonomy from black African governments in capitals more than 1,000 km (600 miles) away.

Tinariwen was formed in revolutionary guerrilla camps set up in the 1980s by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, an advocate of a Saharan Islamic state who hoped adopting the Tuareg cause would win him greater influence in the southern desert.

They met fellow fighters in the camps from groups as diverse as South Africa’s anti-apartheid African National Congress and the Palestine Liberation Organisation and listened to the music of angry young bands like Morocco’s Nass El Ghiwane.

“Gaddafi’s camps were an eye-opener for the Ishumar, not only in a political sense but a cultural one too,” wrote Andy Morgan, Tinariwen’s UK manager, in a brief history of the group.

“In the depths of the southern Libyan desert, they heard the rebel music of Bob Marley, Nass El Ghiwane and John Lennon as well as the rebel philosophy of (Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel) Nasser, Gaddafi and Che Guevara for the first time.”

Peace agreements after the 1990s rebellion in Mali aimed to grant Tuareg communities a greater degree of autonomy while at the same time integrating former fighters into the national army and putting Tuareg politicians in senior government positions.

But a persistent sense that nomadic traditions are threatened means resentment remains high in a region infamous for banditry and smuggling and awash with arms.

Tuareg rebels attacked the remote town of Kidal last month, stealing army vehicles and munitions before withdrawing to surrounding hills, raising fears of a new rebellion. Ag Alhousseyni went to see them before setting off for Sweden.

“They are looking for autonomy for the region of Kidal and for a form of security that fits in with the nomadic lifestyle,” he said. “The region has always been marginalised.”

Speaking from a mountain hideout in the Adrar des Isforhas region north of Kidal, rebel spokesman Eglasse Ag Idar said Tinariwen’s music and poetry had always been an integral part of the revolt as protest anthems known to nomads across the desert.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, they made the Tuaregs aware of their situation. Their music and their poetry played a big role in clarifying the problems,” Ag Idar said by satellite phone.

“The Tuaregs are people who adore desert songs, who are proud of their culture, of their poetry. They helped a lot winning rights and recognition for our culture,” he said.

Described by one critic as “a cross between Fela Kuti and the Velvet Underground”, Tinariwen’s music uses traditional Tuareg, Arabic and Songhai melodies but replaces lutes with electric guitars strumming hypnotic riffs under the vocals.

They are an imposing sight in their indigo-dyed turbans and robes, and their latest work talks of the struggles of desert life and a longing for freedom but occasionally returns to the more militant tone of their early songs.

“Under my skin is the fire of rage and anger … at the gates of Kidal we must assemble and fight,” run the lyrics of Chatma, a song on their latest album “Amassakoul”.

Ag Alhousseyni said the members of Tinariwen had laid down their guns and taken to music more seriously when the rebellion began to meet some of its objectives. Guitarist Keddou no longer plays with the band, instead wandering the desert and playing well-paid gigs for wealthy Libyan cigarette smugglers.

But its members remain closely attuned to the shifting balance of power in the Sahara and the threat to their way of life, making their music as important as ever.

“There’s always the risk of a second rebellion. Even the government is aware of that. The things we signed in the peace deal in 1992 have not been respected,” Ag Alhousseyni said.

“The spirit of rebellion is still in people’s minds.” ‘ Reuters.

June 2006
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