The early 1960s saw the end of colonial rule for many countries in West Africa and the Sahara Desert region in particular. While the independence of Mali, Niger, Algeria, and other countries in the region had come after long, hard struggles on the parts of some of their people and were cause for celebration, there were those whose futures were thrown into turmoil because of it. The creation of these countries saw arbitrary lines drawn in the sand, creating boundaries between the nations where none had existed previously. While this might have defined the new nations’ geographical territory, it resulted in the carving up of a homeland which had existed far longer than any of them.
The Sahara Desert had been home to nomadic people of Berber descent for generations. For caravan leaders and herdsmen who plied the trade routes from Algeria to Niger moving goods and animals as the seasons dictated, their livelihood depended on freedom of movement. With the imposition of artificial borders in the shifting sands, they suddenly found travel restricted and their way of life threatened. When an uprising in Niger attempting to protect their traditions failed in 1963, they were forced to flee for fear of government reprisals. Thus began the diaspora of the Kel Tamishek people, known to the rest of the world as Touareg.
The generation born during this period became the rebels of the future. Many of them fought to secure their traditional rights through the use of arms in the 1990s, but some also realized they needed to find another way of letting the world know about their situation. As a result, a number of these rebels laid down their guns and picked up musical instruments. Not only did they sing about their circumstances, they also sang about what it meant to be Kel Tamishek and why the desert was so important to them as a people. It was their hope future generations would be inspired by their message and not abandon their culture.
Well, the generation who were children during the 1990s are now coming of age and it looks like they were listening, if the music of the group Tamikrest is anything to go by. They have just released their third album, Chatma, on the German-based Glitterbeat Records, and look to be carrying on the work started by their predecessors, groups like Tinariwen. Ousmane Ag Mossa, leader of Tamikrest is quoted in an interview as saying, “[I]t’s Tinariwen who created the path. But the way I see it, if younger bands don’t come through, then Touareg music will eventually die. They created the path and now it’s up to us to walk down it and create the future”.
The title of the new disc reflects the band’s dedication to their people’s tradition. The word chatma means sisters and according to the band is extremely important in Touareg society. Its history dates back to cave etchings and has been used since in everything from historical records to the modern sounds of the “la guitare” groups of today. The word denotes the place occupied by women in their culture, for women are the guardians of their history, culture, and the people as a whole. In the booklet accompanying the disc, the band explains the history of the word and why they dedicated the album to the women of their people, and all women in general. They understand women are always the primary victims of any conflict, and yet still manage to ensure both the survival of their children and their culture.
The first song on the disc, “Tisnant an Chatma” (“The Suffering of My Sisters”) shows how, while the band is primarily concerned with the conditions faced by their own people, they understand women around the world suffer. “We women will march as long as women have not recovered their freedom on this earth/We will march in Azawad”. Here, they are talking about standing up for the rights of all women, while at the same time invoking Touareg nationalism by utilizing the name used for their traditional territories in Northern Mali: Azawad. (The band sings in Tamishek, and their lyrics have been first translated into French and then English.) For me, the final lines of the song are the most telling, as they show a very good understanding of the realities of the world, “The Sisters are waiting for their freedom/Which is hindered by the discord in their brother’s breasts/And which prevents agreement”.
While filtering the lyrics through two layers of translation probably dilutes some of the words’ original impact and meaning, the emotion and passion still comes through when you listen to the band sing while reading the translations. “Pain” (“Takma”), the eighth song on the disc, is a perfect example of this. “I suffer from a pain that inhabits my heart and my soul/It is the same suffering that my brothers are experiencing/Freedom is my soul’s ultimate goal/In my land, The Desert, where my sisters live”. The language sounds somewhat awkward when read off the page, but when you listen to them sing this song, using the English to help guide you, it helps you appreciate the depth of their passion.
Those of you familiar with the first generation of Touareg bands’ style of music will be in for some surprises when listening to Tamikrest. For instead of slavishly imitating those who came before them, they have built on the existing foundation. While they’ve retained a lot of the traditional rhythmic patterns of their people, and the guitar still drives their sound, they’ve also incorporated other musical styles into their sound. So you’ll hear the occasional reggae backbeat crop up in one song and notice a more straight-ahead rock and roll sound in another. Like their lyrics, their music reflects their recognition of the wide world around them.
The Touareg know they can’t live in the splendid isolation their ancestors enjoyed; the world won’t let them. However, they are trying to carve a path which recognizes both the world around them and preserves who they are as a people. The first wave of Touareg bands were primarily concerned with saying, “We are here and this is who we are”. Tamikrest, while continuing the fight to reaffirm their people’s identity, have also recognized they are part of a larger battle, one that indigenous people the world over are fighting to find a place in the world while preserving their heritage. This broadening of vision, combined with their own musical style, makes them not only exciting to listen to, it also bodes well for the state of the Touareg people. By refusing to let themselves be trapped in the past while at the same time being steadfast in the defence of their heritage, they can only increase their chances of finding a way to flourish in the world today. The music of Tamikrest is a giant step in that direction.
Photo credit: Group photo courtesy of glitterbeat.com.