Do you remember back to the days of your high school English literature classes learning about literary devices like foreshadowing and pathetic fallacy? The latter, imbuing events in nature or inanimate objects with human emotions to help create atmosphere and to intensify mood, was the one teachers always trotted out during the study of any of Shakespeare’s plays. Unlike most of the modern writers we would study in high school, he understood the power of natural imagery and how it could evoke reactions at a visceral level. Perhaps that was because in the era when he was writing, nature still had far more of an impact on the day to day lives of people.
Today, unless it’s a storm of some magnitude, like a hurricane or tornado, we can pretty much carry on blithely, ignoring the elements. Oh, rain and snow might inconvenience us slightly on occasion, but for most of us they don’t dictate our food supply or our overall chances of survival.
While you’ll still see the occasional reference to “angry storm clouds” popping up in writing, the use of pathetic fallacy appears to have waned with our continued disassociation with nature. The further we move away from the natural world, the less she becomes part of our frame of reference. For instance, when we refer to a place as being our homeland, we are referring to the space defined by lines drawn on a map and a name representing a social/political entity, not the land itself. You’re far more likely to read an urban landscape described using natural terms, the canyons of Manhattan, or man-made articles being imbued with human emotions, the angry tooting of a car’s horn, than references to natural events in order to create mood. No longer able to identify with nature, we look to what we are familiar with and designate it as a replacement.
This was driven home to me recently while listening to, and reading the translations of the lyrics from the newest release from the Kel Tamashek (more commonly referred to by the name given them by conquering Arabs, “Touareg,” or “rebel”) band Tinariwen. Tassili, being released in North America on Anti Records Tuesday, August 30, 2011, wasn’t recorded in a studio in the midst of some urban centre. Instead it was recorded in the Sahara desert in southern Algeria. The band spent five weeks coming up with material and recording it inside a large tent offering only minimal protection from the elements. For while this is a band who experienced some international success after playing at music festivals all over the world, they have never lost sight of who they are and their reasons for making music.
While the romantic image of band members riding camels with an electric guitar slung over one shoulder and an automatic rifle is appealing, times have changed. True, some of the founding band members participated in the uprisings in Niger and Mali while recording music on cassettes that broadcast the message of the rebellion, one with a message designed to promote and protect the rights of a nomadic people from the policies of repressive governments.
With peace treaties now signed supposedly offering the Kel Tamashek guarantees, their situation remains fragile as years of drought and encroachment on traditional territories have wrecked havoc on their world. Perhaps it’s because of this for this recording the band has relinquished their grips on electric guitars in favour of acoustic and utilized unamplified percussion in order to forge an even stronger connection to both their environment and their traditions.
Now, just as much as during the rebellion if not more, their people need reminders of who they are and why the desert is an important part of their lives. They may no longer be carrying machine guns, but Tinariwen are still actively fighting to ensure the survival of their people. It’s not just the subject matter of the songs communicating to the listeners now, it’s the manner in which it is being presented. This is very much a case of the media being as much a part of the message as the message itself.