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Tuesday 12 November 2019

African music

Desert song

The Saharan region is a breeding ground for conflict – and for musicians who are trying to spread peace

By Andy Morgan

Sometime in 1970, a nine-year-old boy called Ibrahim ag Alhabib clambered onto the back of a cement truck in the southern Saharan town of Tamanrasset and hid under a tarpaulin. He wanted adventure and the chance to earn enough money to support his grandmother and sisters who were living in a nomad camp out in the desert. The truck driver’s apprentice screamed when he discovered Ibrahim the next morning, thinking the little boy, who was covered from head to toe in white cement, was a ghost.

The journey that began on that truck has ended on the world’s most prestigious musical stages. It’s a modern African epic, full of hardship, yearning, but freedom and companionship too. Ibrahim spent years roaming the desert with his fellow Touareg malcontents, training to be a soldier in Libyan army camps, fighting a rebellion against the central government of Mali and, somewhere in the midst of all that, he helped to invent a revolutionary style of Touareg guitar music. Rarely, if ever, has rock’n’roll been blessed with a rawer, more startling, more widescreen biography than his.

Tinariwen, the band that Ibrahim co-founded in the late 1970s along with Alhassane Ag Touhami and brothers Diarra and Inteyeden Ag Ablil, are one of West Africa’s most successful musical exports. Their rolling desert rhythms and whiplash guitar licks have harvested Grammys and BBC World Music Awards, slots at Glastonbury, Roskilde, Coachella, and tours in every quadrant of the globe. Their songs of freedom and assouf – the Touareg word for “heartache” – have earned the admiration of Carlos Santana, Robert Plant, Thom Yorke, Bono, Chris Martin and Brian Eno, to name but a few. Their ninth and latest album, Amadjar, is currently reaping praise and plaudits.

Ibrahim ag Alhabib of Tinariwen performs on stage at The Forum in London, 2010

I’ve known Ibrahim for almost twenty years, and managed Tinariwen for six of them, between 2004 and 2010. The stress of juggling money, battling fortress Europe or America to obtain visas, and keeping the band’s faith alive as we navigated the arcane labyrinths of western showbusiness, was outweighed by the band’s stalwart companionship and the unforgettable moments I spent with them in northern Mali, discovering for myself the treasures of time and space that the Sahara affords inhabitant and visitor alike. I’ve interviewed Ibrahim many times and I’m writing a book based on his life. I’ve also chatted long into the night with the other members of the band, over glasses of bittersweet Touareg tea. Fame hasn’t turned their heads or weakened their bond with the Sahara. Its vast open steppes, its endless horizons, its sheltering skies are the repository of everything they hold dear.

But just as Tinariwen scale new zeniths aboard, back home their desert world is disintegrating. An amorphous conflict that began with a Touareg uprising in 2012, has now spread southwards, sucking the neighbouring countries of Burkina Faso and Niger into its vortex. Suicide bombers and Islamists on motorbikes are attacking army and police installations. Nomads are fighting farmers. Tribes and clans are fighting each other. Hundreds of innocent men, women and children are being caught in the crossfire, or deliberately massacred. Scores of villages are being put to the torch. Schools, clinics, banks and administrative offices are being ransacked and destroyed. Anarchy is taking hold.

A Fulani girl wanders into a puddle after flooding in an Internally Displaced People’s camp in Faladie, where nearly 800 people have found refuge after fleeing violence in central Mali, May 2019

One of the most pervasive emotions among desert people is nostalgia. It clings to a period of supposed grace that began after the French colonial army had finished putting “unfriendly” Touareg tribes to the sword, sometime in the 1920s, and ended when Mali became an independent state in 1960. In those gilt-edged times, the rains were apparently plentiful, the animals healthy and fat, the desert trails free of bandits and hoodlums, and the trust that bound families and clans together was still strong. The Touareg were free to roam their ancestral lands, unencumbered by national borders, with minimum interference from the French.

Then came the fall. In 1963, angered by the alien laws and taxes imposed at independence by Mali’s new socialist regime, the Touareg of northeastern Mali rose up against the “black coloniser”. The revolt was put down with extreme and indiscriminate brutality. Ibrahim’s father was arrested on suspicion of aiding the rebels and murdered in the army barracks in Kidal.

For Ibrahim’s generation, the bitter events of 1963 constitute an original sin. Despite three subsequent rebellions (1990, 2006 and 2012), that sin has never been pardoned or atoned for. Every uprising buffs up the old suspicions and hatreds, urging young men to reach for their Kalashnikovs and sending innocent civilians scurrying for the border. Every peace treaty seems to only end in broken promises and a deepening of those feelings of exclusion, marginalisation and oppression that many Touareg carry in their heart.

Climate change is partly to blame for the Sahara’s fall from grace. Devastating droughts in the 1970s and 1980s were among the main cause of the 1990 rebellion. And, since then, nomadic animal herders have seen their grazing rights eroded by desertification, over-population and the innate tendency of central governments to favour sedentary farmers over nomads, who are supposedly harder to govern. But whereas grazing disputes were once regulated by ancient custom and the timely intervention of the police, they’re now the trigger for violence. And with the number of small arms in circulation in the Sahel region exceeding 500 million, according to various estimates, violence inevitably breeds more violence.

Malnourished Tuareg are provided rations of milk, riz, oil and sugar in a Red Cross food distribution camp, as nomads are diplaced by worsening drought in Gao, 1985

All of Tinariwen’s founding members fought in the rebellion of 1990. It was short, and for Ibrahim at least, cathartic. But hard-won political gains were outweighed by the damage that the conflict inflicted on the delicate social fabric of the region, with its subtle patchwork of ethnicities, languages and cultures. In January 2012, a new generation of young Touareg launched the most brutal rebellion thus far. It introduced violent jihad to northern Mali, a philosophy that was alien to the region until relatively recently. The de facto leader of the Touareg rebel movement, an astute strategist by the name of Iyad ag Ghaly, came to believe that Islam was the only banner that could unite the Muslims of northern Mali and the wider Sahel. He forged links with the Algerian jihadists of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and created a Touareg Islamist militia called Ansar ud-Dine (“Followers of the Faith”). It split the Touareg cause in two. In 2012, having sidelined the secular Touareg nationalists, Ansar ud-Dine and a coalition of jihadi groups seized control of the northern two thirds of the country and occupied it for ten long months.

The French army intervened in January 2013 to chase them out and restore government control, but it was only a pause. Jihadi violence has since reappeared with renewed vigour in the centre of the country, where a militia known as the Katiba Macina comprising of young fighters from the nomadic Fulani tribe has been waging a civil war against Dogon and Bambara farmers, leaving a trail of burning villages and murdered civilians. The same scenario is being acted out along Mali’s southern borders with Niger and Burkina Faso.

Tuareg rebels patrolling near their camp of Tigha, March 2006

Iyad ag Ghaly used to enjoy singing and carousing with Ibrahim and the other members of Tinariwen. He even wrote a song or two for Tinariwen. Now he considers all music except Qur’anic chanting to be the devil’s work and refuses to shake a woman’s hand. In 2013, one of Ag Ghali’s born-again acolytes tried to persuade Ibrahim to give up music and devote his life to God. Ibrahim successfully dodged the issue, but later felt enough discomfort, despite his enormous fame in the desert, to move his family north and take temporary refuge in Algeria.

“When I was a child,” Ibrahim once said to me, “my mother and grandparents told me about Islam and I was made to understand that it was something tender, that emanated from a heart that sought peace, tranquility, understanding. That’s Islam for me. It has nothing to do with violence, murder or war.”

During their occupation of the north, the jihadists banned music, football, alcohol, cigarettes, dancing and “loose” dress for women, punishing those who strayed with whips, beatings and imprisonment. Most Malians were outraged. And yet, many desert dwellers are nostalgic for aspects of that period. “Al Qaida, it’s stronger than us,” a member of Tinariwen once told me. “We don’t understand it. Maybe we’ll fight it; maybe we’ll sell ourselves to it. I don’t know. But, for sure, when the Islamists were in charge, we experienced ten months of complete security. You could leave your motorbike in one place, go to London, and when you came back, it was still in the same place.” Almost every Malian I talk to believes that a society’s need for security trumps their need for democracy, by a long margin, every time.

Real anarchy is never pretty. In the absence of an effective state, communities, families, tribes are forced to defend themselves and their own interests. Every young man must take sides and join one “gang” or another. Or become a refugee. The result in Mali is an alphabet soup of different militia toting their Kalashnikovs and churning up the desert trails in pursuit of their own narrow tribal, political and economic objectives: MNLA, MAA, HCUA, CMA, MSA, GATIA, AQIM, GSIM, MSA, CMFPR, EIGS – the bewilderment of acronyms, each representing a different tribe or alliance, some pro-government, others anti, some inspired by Islam, other doggedly secular, is an apt illustration of an atomised society. The tragic by-product of all that micro-violence is the erosion of trust between individuals and tribes and the weakening of symbiotic relationships that once bound the nomad to the sedentary farmer, allowing both to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

A Dogon farmer and the chief of the community in So meets a Senegalese soldier from the UN mission, July 2019

Little wonder that many of Tinariwen’s songs are about unity and trust. “There was a time you could trust anyone in your family or clan with your life,” Ibrahim says. “During the occupation, even when your cousin came to visit you, you were asking yourself if he’d been bought by the Islamists.”

Guns are an economic, as well as a political necessity. With a Kalash’ in hand, a young desert dweller can defend his community, fight for the political ascendancy of his clan, become a bandit and feed his family, or join one of the drugs convoys have become the mainstay of the desert economy. Now that tourism has been killed off by jihadism, alternative career opportunities are as rare as gold.

Almost every Touareg man of a certain age has smuggled something across one of the borders that carved up the Sahara at independence at some point in his life, mostly cigarettes from Nigeria or cheap subsidised fuel and foodstuffs from Algeria. But in the 1990s harder drugs began to make an appearance, first hashish, then cocaine (hash is roughly 12 times more profitable than cigarettes, and cocaine 25 times more profitable than hash). A tradition of trans-Saharan trading that stretched back to the old days of the camel caravans became turbo-charged and brutalised.

Nowadays, drugs money funds militias and fuels the arms trade. It also enables families who were once at the bottom of the traditional hierarchy to rise up and challenge the power of the old nobility. Instead of living in meagre tents or adobe huts, the dons of the trade now live in well-appointed villas in Gao, Timbuktu, or Bamako, taking care of their money-laundered interests. Wealth also buys political power and high office.

Foreign governments and analysts scratch their heads as they monitor the growth of mafia-style networks in the Sahara. But to a penniless, jobless youth languishing in some wind-blown desert town, the lure of drugs money is far from mysterious. “It’s business, that’s all,” a member of Tinariwen once told me. “People say it’s haram, but the person who joins a convoy and succeeds can buy themselves a few 4x4s and set themselves up. They don’t care so much about the nature of the merchandise. Instead of being penniless, unemployed, good for nothing, no wife, they can become boss. Sorted.”

Nomads gather to trade cattle, March 2017

Saddest perhaps, for the Tinariwen fan, is the dampening effect that this anarchic new normal is having on the desert’s rich and varied cultural life. There was a time when music serenaded every one of that life’s major chapters – birth, baptism, marriage, death. No longer. Ibrahim told me that he hardly touched his guitar during the Islamist occupation of 2012. The atmosphere of strife and suffering wasn’t conducive to music making.

“Hearts have been silent this winter season,” he told me back in 2014. “There’s been none of the usual partying, camel dancing or tindé drumming sessions. The Ansar ud-Dine people are everywhere, with their beards and cut-off trousers. People have lost their taste for music.”

And yet, all the members of Tinariwen still choose to live in this traumatised land. Ibrahim has a small-holding in a valley called Affara, near the village of Tessalit, the epicentre of the 2012 conflict. He wouldn’t live anywhere else. In common with most desert dwellers, his attachment to his homeland, the cool clarity of its mornings, the milky gold of its evenings, the sense of limitless time and space and the peace, the silence that nature affords when left to itself, remains unbreakable.

Ibrahim ag Alhabib beside a camp fire in the desert

“The nomad out in the desert has nothing and knows nothing,” Ibrahim says. “It’s as if the Touareg woke up yesterday. All is new to them, beyond them. They’re learning how understand these external forces, learning how to cope. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Photographs Marie Planeille, Nadia Nid el Mourid, Thomas Dorn and Getty Images

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Further reading

The Dark Sahara: America’s war on terror in Africa, by Jeremy Keenan. Authoritative if controversial, Keenan examines the regional and global dimensions and dark underbelly of the current conflict in the Sahara and Sahel.

Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara: Regional connectivity in the Twentieth Century, by Judith Scheele. A superbly researched analysis of the modern trading and smuggling networks in the Sahara.

A Season in Hell: My 130 days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda, by Robert R. Fowler. Canadian diplomat and UN representative Robert Fowler’s account of his kidnapping by Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and survival as a hostage in the deep desert.

Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, competing nationalisms, and Tuareg rebellions in northern Mali, by Baz Lecocq. The most authoritative academic study of successive Tuareg rebellions available in English.

Music Culture and Conflict in Mali, by Andy Morgan. An overview of the Malian crisis of 2012 and its effects on cultural life, especially music.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) regularly publish some of the best reports and analyses of the situation in Mali, the Sahara and the Sahel. Their reports on drug trafficking and the conflict in central and south eastern Mali, between Fulani nomads on sedentary farmers, are especially informative.

Andy Morgan

The author managed Tinariwen from 2004 as they took their music to the world. Since 2010 he has focused his writing on the politics and society of West Africa and the Sahara.