Songs of exile and resistance

Through their music and poetry, the Tuareg share their inner-battles and wider struggles with the world.

Malian Tuareg musicians Tinariwen lived the 'ishumar' epic at first hand, the author writes [GALLO/GETTY]

“Assouf, son of Assouf,
Whose shadow comes when the sun goes down,
I know we’re bound together in friendship,
Inseparable, awake or asleep,
Abandon your illusions, my friends,
Fear too much desire.
Don’t even try to engrave the traces on a stone.”

– Translated from the lyrics of the song ‘Assouf Ag Assouf’ by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, founder of Tinariwen

Throughout history, great social change or mass migration has generally been accompanied by the invention of some new and revolutionary style of music. At the very least, a new corpus of songs has appeared to chart the rumbling of history’s tectonic plates in roaring epics, raucous dances or heart-shredding ballads. Think of the great Irish migrations of the 19th century, the exodus of rural blacks from the southern states of the USA to Chicago and other cities in the north in the 1940s and 1950s, or the youthful revolutions of the 1960s.

Recent Tuareg history offers a fine illustration of this principle. In the southern Sahara, the transformation of a semi-autonomous rural society into a dependent semi-urban one, a process that took centuries in Europe and other parts of the world, was essentially telescoped into the few decades that followed the end of colonialism. It uprooted families from the silent isolation of their far-flung encampments and forced them to confront the alien realities of modern ‘civilisation’ and statehood. It shoved weapons into the hands of young men, ripping apart the delicate skein of ethnic allegiance and social interaction that had existed previously and rendering old hierarchies, customs and certainties futile and irrelevant.

Throughout this period of deep trauma and change, which has its roots in the arrival of France’s colonial armies more than a century ago but began in earnest in the early 1960s and hasn’t ended yet, Tuareg society has had only one home-grown and genuinely universal means of communicating both with itself and with the outside world: Music. Or should that be music, and the poetry from which it is inseparable.

Apart from the odd Tuareg intellectual or writer like Hawad or Ibrahim al Koni; a few radio stations in Mali and Niger broadcasting in Tamasheq, the Tuareg language; the odd short-lived printed paper or magazine adventure; or the more recent welter of web sites run by young Tuareg cybernauts, music has been the be-all and end-all of the Tuareg media machine: its BBC, Reuters and CNN, its debating space and noticeboard, its cultural ambassador to foreign lands, its spur and solace.

And it is not just any old music, but a new style that was born in the late 1970s and early 1980s and faithfully reflected the pain of upheaval and dislocation that inspired it. It was rough, artisanal, homespun and performed with guitars – first acoustic, then electric. It was a style first fashioned by young Tuareg men from northern Mali and Niger who had left the warm certainty of their family hearths for the dark, chill danger of life as illegal migrants in neighbouring countries, especially Algeria and Libya.

The ishumar

They were the ishumar, so called because these wandering young exiles often found themselves penniless and jobless in some desert town such as Tamanrasset, Ghat, Ghardaia, Djanet or In Salah, where they were taunted by the local police and population for being chomeurs, the French word for ‘unemployed’.

Orphans of the Sahara

Like proud members of many a shunned or reviled underclass the world over, they took this insult and turned it into a badge of honour. Years later, it was these ishumar who took up arms against the central governments of Mali and Niger, to fight, as they saw it, for their culture, their families and their freedom.

This new style of music – assouf, guitare, al gitara, teshumara, desert blues, Tuareg rock – call it what you will, had roots of course. Its lyrical spirit can be traced back to the old war cries of the Tuareg warriors and bandit rebels of former times, the old poems of bravery, beauty and customary splendour, or newer satirical poetry composed by women, which upbraided Tuareg men for their torpor and Tuareg society for its backwardness. Its sound is rooted in the traditional beat of the tendé drum and the complex inflections of the teherdent, the three stringed lute played by the Tuareg and Songhoi griots of Gao and the Niger bend.

The ishumar also drew inspiration from the rebellious chaabi music of the Maghreb, from the jagged protest songs of the Polisario, the swirl of Egyptian and Sudanese pop and from the modern mutations in the music of the Songhoi, especially the guitar music of Ali Farka Toure. There was also a peripheral influence from the music of the great icons of 1970s western rock and pop.

But despite these antecedents, assouf – the label for the music most favoured by the Tuareg themsleves – was shockingly, thrillingly new when it first appeared in the barrios of Tamanrasset and other desert towns in the early 1980s. New, because it belonged to a generation who hadn’t deemed it necessary to ask permission to be themselves or play the music they wanted to play. Their response to the gradual erosion of Tuareg dignity and self-reliance, the suffocation of the old nomadic ways by borders, droughts or government policy and corruption, was to invent a new kind of nomadism, one that had little or no respect either for the modern state and its frontiers, or for the honour and clan-obsessed ways of previous Tuareg generations.

Where had that sense of honour, that old world-shy isolationism and inwardness led the Tuareg people? That was the question their very existence asked of their parents and grand-parents? Down the road to oblivion was the answer.

Youth must hope, and the hope of the ishumar manifested itself in a desire to move, to seek out the modern world and confront it head on, with all its temptations and trappings: jeans, shades, moustaches, brightly coloured shirts, boots, ghetto-blasters, watches, TVs, radios and, of course, guitars. So off they went, ignoring the jibes and taunts of their sisters who berated them for leaving their families unprotected, hitching lifts in trucks and 4x4s or just walking in small groups through the immensity of the desert, a five litre plastic can of water strapped to their backs, and a naval canvas bag around their shoulders, into Libya, Algeria, those promised lands.

They called it at-tawra al-beidoun, the revolution of the bidon (jerry can). It was this mass exodus of youth that gave birth to assouf, a feeling of loneliness and isolation, a longing for home and hearth, a pain deep in the heart that no doctor or imam can heal. It was the duende, the saudade, the ‘blues’ of the Sahara’s Generation X. It was also the name of a brand new style of Tuareg guitar music.

Assouf goes global

The originators of that style, men from the Kidal region of northeastern Mali, like Ibrahim ag Alhabib, Inteyeden and his brother Diarra and other members of Tinariwen, or Abdallah ag Oumbadougou and the other members of Takrist n Akal, who kick-started the sound in neighbouring Niger, they all lived the ishumar epic at first hand. It was their youth, their adventure and their necessity, both enforced and desired.

All these men later answered Muammar Gaddafi’s call to join military training camps and become ‘real’ soldiers. In 1990 they went AWOL from those Libyan camps and smuggled themselves back into the lands of their birth and fought the great rebellion of 1990-1991.The fighting was over in a matter of months, but bitter ethnic wars ensued. The sense of disillusionment with Tuareg leaders and with the disunity of the movement was profound and its bitterness infused many of assouf songs that were written following the signing of the National Pact between the rebel movement and the Malian government in 1992.

The truth is that assouf has relatively little to do with beating the drums of war and flying the flag of rebellion, and more about probing the modern Tuareg condition, uncovering its wounds and its pain, debating the right modus vivendi, lamenting disunity and selfishness whilst yearning for home, family, beauty and love.

By this time, however, assouf was everywhere. Tinariwen, Takrist n Akal, and other originators had spent years recording their songs, most often for free, onto cassettes which were then re-copied endlessly and carried in bags, under robes, clandestino, hundreds of miles across the desert to camps and homes where Tuareg men and women, boys and girls, listened in awe to this reflection of their own longing, anxiety and confusion. Those songs laid bare the modern world in all its traumatic complexity and pain, in a Tamasheq slang riddled with ‘exotic’ foreign words and phrases, seemingly for the first time ever. The music made the refugees dream of home, and the stay-at-homes dream of their loved ones in exile.

A young man by the name of Ousmane ag Mossa heard one of those cassettes when he was barely five years old, in his home village of Tinzawaten in the far north of Mali. He later became the founder and frontman of Tamikrest, who currently spearhead a new breed of Tuareg rockers from northern Mali. A young bambino by the name of Goumar El Moctar heard Tinariwen in Tahaggart, the Malian Tuareg ghetto of Tamanrasset in the 1990s. He even played guitar with Hassan and Abdallah from Tinariwen. That young boy is now known worldwide as Bombino, the leading light of Tuareg music in Niger.

This ersatz samizdat hand-to-mouth ghetto-blaster to ghetto-blaster media machine spawned a thousand new assouf guitarists and singers, who croaked out the lyrics to songs by Ibrahim, Inteyeden, Kheddou or some other hero, tapping gentle rhythms on an upturned washing bucket, dreaming big dreams in every corner of the southern Sahara. The flame was transferring itself to a new generation.

Then, in 2001, the year of the first Festival in the Desert and the first tour of Europe by Tinariwen, assouf went global. Soon there seemed to be no contemporary music venue or festival of note anywhere in the world that hadn’t programmed an assouf band at one time or another – Glastonbury, Coachella, Fuji Rock, Roskilde, Bonaroo, Paleo, the opening of the World Cup in Johannesburg – they all rolled to the old loping rhythms of assouf. Despite a crumbling CD market, thousands of albums were sold by Tinariwen, Tamikrest, Terakaft, Bombino and others. Everyone had to have one, alongside their Jesus and the Mary Chain, their Radiohead or their White Stripes.

Did the music lose its soul? Some commentators and Tuareg intellectuals think so. The sound changed for sure. Better studios, better guitars, European or North American producers, and the need to play the commercial game at least to some extent, were all bound to have their effect. But this was also another adventure, a new reinvention of that old nomadism and one that had long been desired by the musicians themselves. And who can place a value on the fact that music-lovers from Seattle to Shanghai and all points in between now knew that the Tuareg existed, that their history was one of pain and struggle and that they had a millennial culture more wondrous that they can ever have been imagined.

The world also tended to gobble up some of the inevitable clichés and easy branding in its attempt to understand this new phenomenon. Poet-fighters, guitar on one shoulder and a Kalashnikov on the other, striding across the desert like rock’n’roll primitives, full of fire and sincerity; it was all so alluring and seductive to the jaded western mind.

Yearning for home

Ousmane ag Mossa was inspired by assouf at a young age and eventually went on to head the band Tamikrest [GALLO/GETTY]

But the truth is that assouf has relatively little to do with beating the drums of war and flying the flag of rebellion, and more about probing the modern Tuareg condition, uncovering its wounds and its pain, debating the right modus vivendi, lamenting disunity and selfishness whilst yearning for home, family, beauty and love.

Great poets thrive on doubt and yearning rather than self-righteousness and certainty, and the great poets of assouf are no different. Sure there are assouf anthems that urge “friends” and “fellow-travellers” to be fearless in the face of death, to fly like eagles over the enemy, to never give up. But their poetic qualities are usually in inverse proportion to the simplicity of their one-dimensional message. In contrast, the greatest assouf poems are full of questioning, soul-searching, love and pain. And pride too, pride in toughness and the ability to overcome diversity, pride in culture and the beauty of home.

Take these lines from ‘Imidiwan Winakalin’ (‘Friends of my Country’) by Ibrahim ag Alhabib:

“Friends of my country, I live in exile.
I fight against my thoughts. I’m loosing my grip on the world.
But I never forget my goal, nor the sisters who I left behind
In the land of my loved ones, where my memory was still vivid.
I’m in a motherless land now and my soul burns with unhappiness.
I consume my heart with the smoke of cigarettes, and it amplifies my pain.”

Or the melancholy reflection of these lines from ‘Nak Amadjar ni Dounia’ (‘I, Stranger to Life’) by Ousmane ag Mossa from Tamikrest:

“In this world, to whom I owe my existence,
My days will reach their end.
I’m just a passenger of life
Which, as it comes, will also take its leave.
My soul and heart know it, and I also believe
That I was not created to be eternal
My life is made of illusions,
In which my sadness overwhelms my joy
My heart never ceases to express
The evil I have known, which my people have lived.”

Or the self-criticism explicit in these lines from ‘Toumast’ (‘The People’) by Abdallah ag Alhousseyni of Tinariwen:

“A divided people will never reach its goal
It will never cultivate an acacia tree with beautiful leaves
A divided people will loose its way
Each part of it will become an enemy in itself.”

And these from ‘Matadjem Yinmixan’, one of Tinariwen’s most famous songs:

“Why all this hate between you, which you teach your children?
The world looks at you and surpasses your understanding
You who resemble neither a westerner nor an Arab
Your faith in tribes blinds you to the truth.”

And so the canon goes on, with its self-examination, self-questioning, self-doubt as well as its yearning love of nature, beauty, womanhood and home.

Assouf music has yet to express a clear response to the great conflagration of 2012, when yet another Tuareg uprising in the north of Mali led to a catastrophic hijacking of the cause by armed Islamist groups and a legacy of social enmity and ethnic bitterness unsurpassed in modern Saharan history. Apart from a few notable exceptions – ‘Toumast Tincha’ a new track on the forthcoming Tinariwen album Emmar, and some of the material on Tamikrest’s latest Chatma – it seems as if most assouf musicians are as yet at a loss to express their sense of shock, anger, sadness and betrayal at the arrival of the Salafist scourge in their midst and the machinations of criminals, politicians and foreign powers that have brought their homeland to its present sorry state. Not to mention the inexorable decline of influence and liberty and the seemingly endless suffering of women, children and the elderly.

Those songs will come, no doubt. The conversation will carry on. And, as it does, all those with any interest or feeling for the plight of the Sahara and its peoples should listen in, with open minds and ears, attentively.