Musical Reflections on Dramatic Events in Northern Mali
Our recent post about JeConte & the Mali Allstars featuring Khaira Arby, Vieux Farka Touré and Bassekou Kouyate creating a song pleading for peace in their native Mali made me reflect. These three are all extraordinary, internationally celebrated artists from different backgrounds.
Khaira’s heritage is Berber and Songhai. Vieux’s is Sonrai. Bassekou’s is Bambara and Mande. In my many interviews with the late Ali Farka Touré, he always delighted in the multi-ethnic heritage of his beloved north and pointed out that he drew from different languages, folklore and music styles for his art. When I met Khaira in Timbuktu in 2000, she likewise talked about Timbuktu as an exciting and rich crossroads of different ethnic groups that inspired her.
Songhai, Tuareg, and Sonrai artists all perform takamba, a style marked by slow, graceful arm and hand movements that you see in every Tinariwen performance. The origins go back to the Songhai Empire, hundreds of years ago. And the Tuareg developed their own version in the last century. One of Habib Koité’s first hits was “Fatima” also in the takamba style, showing his eager embrace of all Malian culture, not just his own ethnic group. At the Festival in the Desert in Essakane in 2003, we saw Oumou Sangare, the premier Wassoulou singer from the south perform takamba and she called on stage Ali Farka who danced it brilliantly–beaming and serene. The point is that Mali is a multi-ethnic society through and through. This goes way back to the 13th century when Mali became an empire. And Mali has always prided itself as multi-ethnic. What could so easily be a source of division has been instead an admirable source of national pride.
So for one ethnic group to declare that half the country is their independent homeland flies in the face of the reality of centuries of people from different ethnic backgrounds in the north of Mali–the sedentary Sonrai farmers, the nomadic Tuareg, the Fula, the Bozo fishermen, various desert tribes–living in relative symbiosis. And it’s pretty clear that the 100,000 to 200,000 or more Malians who have fled their homes in the north don’t feel particularly liberated.
I’m not trying to take any sides in this complicated situation and I don’t pretend to fully understand it. Of course the Tuareg have been on and off fighting for their rights/independence since colonial times. And they have sometimes been treated brutally and certainly have legitimate grievances. Furthermore, they have suffered massive droughts that have killed off flocks and existentially compromised the very possibility of their nomadic lifestyle. But we in the West need to be careful about regurgitating press releases and simplistic marketing campaigns. If the way to redress the unfairness of colonial borders and policies of neglect were to fight for ethnically-based homelands, the African continent would be awash in civil war, north to south.
This piece in The New Yorker online, detailing Tinariwen’s lyrics and the story of the Tuareg is the best I’ve seen on the subject from the Tuareg point of view. Note that the father of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the Tinariwen guitarist/singer with the big shock of black hair, was executed by the Malian government in 1963 for helping the rebels. He comes to his convictions through hard life experience.
What has dismayed me most in the last several weeks is the scant attention paid to the plight of the 100,000+ refugees in the north who scattered to Mauritania, Algeria, Niger and within Mali. This is the deadly hot season. What is happening to these non-Tuaregs? Is there enough food and shelter and water? Is there medical care? Who are legit organization providing relief that we can donate to help our brothers and sisters in need? See our separate post for links to aid organizations providing relief. And please consider forwarding those links to sympathetic friends.
– Sean Barlow, Exec. Producer
To help and read-up on organization: