A shot from the Sahel

Pub date October 30, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Many moons ago, when I moved as a child to Africa, my mother, my sister, and I resided in the Sahel. To be precise: we lived in Bamako, the vibrant capital city of Mali — not to be confused with the medieval empire of the same name. To reside there as a Western black was strange; our Americanness placed us in the novel position of being regarded as de facto aristos, somewhere between such elevated classes as wealthy, regal descendents of the Keita clan and the dispossessed, which included Imazighen exiles. To see beautiful but abject so-called Tuareg women and girls begging in the dusty streets of Bamako from the windows of our funereal Lincoln Town Car — the incongruity of them huddled at roadsides and traffic stops in their indigo or floral clothes, their grace surpassed only by the Wolof women to the northwest in Senegal — was a mind-blowing experience that has stayed with me in the decades since.

The complexities of centuries of intraracial warfare and political mayhem derived from poisonous North African colonial legacies were largely beyond my eight-year-old mind’s grasp. As Madame l’Ambassadeur, my late mother was the one to travel up-country and beyond, nearer the heart of the Sahara, and she worked tirelessly to have any impact on the volatile situation in the country. I was restricted by the quotidian business of school and play, but my far-roving mind began a lifelong romance with Mali’s two most fabled folk of the Western Sudan, the Dogon and the Imazighen. The star-walking Dogon were remote and mysterious at the Bandiagara escarpment, but the grave injustices being done to the proud, rebel Imazighen were plain to see in Bamako rush-hour traffic.

When I listen to the music of Africa’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, Tinariwen (translated from Tamasheq, "the deserts"), from L’Adrar des Iforas, this baggage comes with me, weighted with shame at not following in the career footsteps of my selfless Africanist mother and fear that people of the West will never truly comprehend the vital importance of the many Africas to their own humanity. With or without Tinariwen’s great Amassakoul and current Aman Iman (both World Village; 2004, 2007) on my iPod as I ride the Manhattan subway, when I see disenfranchised people begging down the aisle I am always jolted back to the visceral yet illusory sensation of extending my thin, childish arm through the steel of the Lincoln to help a reddish-brown-skinned Amazigh girl in elegant rags, no different than me in that she was the child of parents who wanted to be free.

Whereas my parents’ generation of young black revolutionaries sought to forge strong pan-Africanist links all the way from DC to Dar es Salaam, and their cult-nat elements experimented in folk, soul, rock, and funk genres to express the hopes and fears of the 1960s era of deliverance from Jim Crow, there in Bamako, as a child at the turn of the ’80s, I was witnessing at a remove the rise of radical culture spawned by Kel Tamasheq ishumaren (unemployed) forced to abandon traditional nomadic ways by poverty and drought. These black folks’ rebel music, tishoumaren, has found its apotheosis in Tinariwen since the group first emerged from a Libyan military camp in 1985, moving from guns to guitars in the process of wresting messages of uplift from chaos. They weave a sound web linking traditional instrumentation (like the tehardant, or lute), Maghrebi music (think Nass el Ghiwane), James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and even rap ("Arawan" on Amassakoul) — superbad, indeed.

The droning, hallucinatory blues of the Blue Men of the Ténéré may have increasingly wowed exogamous audiences since the acclaim Tinariwen’s Kel Tamasheq musicians received from jamming with Robert Plant at the 2003 Festival in the Desert, but there lies a deep source of crisis beneath the band’s international success. Recorded in Bamako, Aman Iman‘s "Soixante Trois" captures guitarist-singer Ibrahim ag Alhabib recalling the brutally suppressed 1963 Imazighen rebellion against the government of newly independent Mali. Tinariwen’s spare sound brings great joy on purely aesthetic grounds, the masterful harnessing of rolling electricity and overlapping ululation indelibly making a mark on the diasporic continuum stretching from Mali’s Ali Farka Touré to Mississippi’s Otha Turner and back again.

Yet it must never be forgotten that the mysteries of Al Baraka, the hardships of desert life and the hardcore realities of war, inform these songs, and such has been the lot of the aboriginal peoples of Tamazgha from the time of Roman and Islamic imperial incursions onto the North African sands up through current attempts to further disenfranchise the Imazighen in order to appropriate their oil-rich ancestral lands. Aman Iman‘s very title — meaning "water is life" — refers not merely to the primal law of the desert but also to the very real, enduring crisis afflicting the region’s ecology and society. As you rightly enjoy Tinariwen on tour, please remember and act on the fact that for the headliners, the fight continues on every front. *


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