Open up Google Maps and check out Agadez in the Western part of Niger and the Sahara desert. If you switch over to the satellite view of the city and pull back far enough it disappears into the surrounding desert. It becomes just another shade of brown in what appears to be a never ending vista of tan. How did this city come to appear here in what is apparently the middle of nowhere? Is it just some recent thing that sprang up in response to human greed for something buried beneath the shifting sands? In actual fact the city was founded sometime before the 14th century and was officially designated a Sultanate in 1449. More importantly it is the capital of Air, one of the traditional Tuareg federations, and was one of key way stations along the caravan routes they followed carrying trade from Algerian ports on the Mediterranean Sea into the interior of Africa and back.
Descendants of the Berber tribes of North Africa they were named Tuareg, Arabic for rebels, for their initial resistance to adopting the Muslim faith, but refer to themselves as the Kel Tamsheq after their language. Even though they eventually adopted the religion and the camel herding nomadic lifestyle they now live of the colonizing Arabs, they have continued to resist any kind of external control over their lives to this day. From French colonial rule to having the way they practice their religion dictated to them by outsiders they have have struggled preserve their way of life and traditional territories. Since the withdrawal of French rule from the Sahara in the early 1960s the lands they used to move through freely have been divided up amongst Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Algeria. Since 1963, and the first uprising of the modern era, they have taken up arms to protect their rights in the 1980s, the 1990s and most recently in 2007.
Much like elsewhere in the world the Kel Tamsheq discovered treaties have a way of being forgotten when governments change or when it is discovered the useless land they were given is rich in natural resources. It would come as no surprise to Native Americans to hear that when uranium was discovered in Niger all the treaties were thrown out the window. While the 1980s had seen the Kel Tamsheq fighting for their lands, the 1990s saw them fighting for survival as the Niger government began to target them for persecution. Libya and Algeria have both served as homes in exile for them in the past, and did again in the 90s. Among those whose families fled to Algeria at the time was Omara “Bombino” Moctar from Agadez. Twenty some years later, both Moctar and Agadez are the subject of a new documentary film, Agadez, The Music and the Rebellion, directed and produced by Ron Wyman and his Zero Gravity Films production company.
Since the 1980 uprisings more and more among the Kel Tamsheq have turned to music in order to both further their cause around the world and as a means of keeping their own culture alive for new generations who have been cut off from the traditional lifestyle of their parents. With the loss of their habitat to expanding populations and resource exploitation a generation faces the risk of being cut adrift from what it means to be a Kel Tamsheq as they come of age in the cities instead of the desert. According to Wyman’s notes he had initially set out to make a film about the people and the city of Agadez. However the movie evolved into including the young musician, Omara “Bombino” Moctar (He was given the nickname Bombino by the older musicians who he first played with as a play on the Italian word for baby bambino) whose music they were introduced too via a cassette tape their guide played endlessly while driving them, and the role music was playing in furthering their cause.
Sometimes changing horses in mid stream like this can result in either never making it across the river or at least getting soaking wet. However, in this case Wyman has done a magnificent job of integrating the two seemingly divergent directions his film could have taken. Primarily this is because he has the courage the recognize the strength of the bond between the music, the environment and the people to let them speak for themselves through the visuals supplied by his camera instead of relying only on talking heads to make the point. The movie’s opening frames not only establish his intent to adhere to the credo of a “picture being worth a thousand words”, they also prove out the adage by taking our breath away and letting us know we’re entering into an environment far removed from anything most of us have ever experienced.
However, since images can be misunderstood by a viewer’s preconceived notions of what is important in life based on their own circumstances, Wyman wisely ensures we are given the proper context to place them in. To us what looks like abject poverty and primitive living conditions – hauling water from wells, cooking over open fires and a noticeable lack of any of the amenities we consider bare essentials, are simply the realities of living in that environment. Through interviews with members of the Kel Tamsheq community of Agadez, well educated people who have experienced life outside of the desert and chosen to return home, we learn enough of the people’s history and their philosophy of life to begin to understand what they consider important and why these “hardships” are a small price to pay for being able to live as they choose.
At one point one of those interviews tells the story of how at first the people cursed their parents for bringing them to such a harsh land where survival was so difficult. However they soon came to bless them, for nobody else wanted it and they could live as they wished. As with any other culture whose people are as in tune with their environment as the Kel Tamsheq, it’s when they are removed from it problems arise. This is why they have fought so hard, and against increasingly impossible odds, for the right to live as they have always lived. However they are also realists and have come to understand they will never win through force of arms and the times require a different approach.
The need to integrate their approach to life with living in the modern world is what has made the role of musicians like Bombino so important to the Kel Tamsheq. For not only are they able to carry their case to the world, they are also the means of communicating to the new generation what it means to be one of the Kel Tamsheq and why they should take pride in who they are. In telling the story of Bombino, Wyman shows us how music is the chain connecting the generations both through the way he learned to play and how he is continuing the work begun by his teachers. The music he plays combines the modern and traditional worlds his people move through both in the content of his lyrics and in the music itself.
The life of the Kel Tamsheq is not easy, but it is the life they have chosen to live and desire to keep on living in as much as the modern world will allow them to do so. In Agadez, The Music And The Rebellion Ron Wyman has done an excellent job of not only depicting their life without romanticizing or sentimentalizing it, but showing what they are doing to preserve it in the face of increasingly difficult odds. Follow his camera into one of the harshest environments on earth and meet the people who not only live there, but cherish the freedom it brings them. You will also meet the remarkable young musician, Omara “Bombino” Moctar, whose story of exile and return is typical for his generation, but whose talent is unique. Like his people he has persevered in the face of persecution (two of the musicians he used to play with were killed by the Niger army when they targeted the musicians among the Kel Tamsheq in the 2007 uprising and he was in exile in Burkina Faso until 2010) and now uses what he does best to fight for them.
Named Tuareg, rebels, by the first wave of invaders who tried to dictate to them how to live, the Kel Tamsheq may have laid down their weapons but that doesn’t mean they have given up their battle for independence. Ron Wyman’s film is currently making the rounds of film festivals in North America and around the world telling their story. Hopefully it will find its way onto DVD soon. There are many people in the world who claim to speak for freedom and liberty, but few whose way of life epitomizes those ideals as much as the Kel Tamsheq. If for no other reason it will be a shame if this movie is not seen by as a wide an audience as possible. The good news is those wishing to hear the music of Bombino won’t have to wait long as his CD, Agadez, is being released by the Cumbancha label on April 14, 2011.
Photo credits: Agadez Mosque By Moonlight by Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak; photo of Omara “Bombino” Moctar by Ron Wyman