Tag Archives: azawad

lack of better words


Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud, photo by Ibrahim Ag Aminy

Isswat, for lack of a better word, is what people have the habit of calling this particular music from the desert. It’s a style that like many things, seems to be localized and specific to one particular region of the world – a tiny circle of Azawad, North of Mali, in the Adrar D’Ifoghas. The Adrar is desert, but instead of the Sahara of dunes, it is a landscape of vast open sky, wiry bushes and twisted trees scattered across a surface of parched earth. There are low mountains, rendered spectacular in the otherwise planar landscape. In comparison, they seem enormous. It is nothing like the mountains of Air with mountaintop villages and citrus filled oases, but there is a rugged beauty to the emptiness and repeated motifs that you can name and comprehend – seven types of tree, three types of bush, three type of wild animal, four directions. But innumerable starlight.

Isswat comes from here (I’ve spoken of the music before 1, 2) Musically it consists of what a friend calls “the four elements”: singing, clapping, stomping, and drumming. There is always a woman singing a melody that dances over a constant droning hum that is maintained by a group of young men, each picking up the spaces when the other one takes a breath.

There are few recordings of Isswat. Perhaps some exist in archives somewhere. Two very unique recordings, certainly the only studio recordings of Isswat, were made at a small studio in Kidal in 2008. They were released on cassette and CD, sold locally in Kidal, and distributed via mp3 on memory cards and cellphones. A few years ago, the first cassette by Idassane Wallet Mohamed was reissued. This is the second one – recorded by a young woman from Adrar, Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud.

This time, we were able to translate the songs, courtesy of Ibrahim Ag Mouhamadine, a Tamashek speaker and Portland resident, and researcher Nadia Belalimat. Translation is an art, and nowhere is that more apparent than translating from a distinctly different culture. My contribution was clarifying some words and cleaning up grammar. Since there is no objective translation, these err on literality, and may read as cumbersome. They demand a certain acceptance, a willingness to be baffled and confused, and suggest the path to profound understanding is not just in language, but culture itself.

In one case, we struggled with the translation “tarha n ibliss” which literally translates to “love of the devil.” In Tamashek, this is the term for romantic love, as opposed to the “pure” love for one’s family. However, calling it simply “romantic” would be stripping away all of the structure and poetry of language. In the end, the translation reads as “devil’s love,” so as not to confuse the reader that the singer is praising the devil. Such are the difficulties of translations.

Translation booklet available here.

One thing is sure – the songs here are all about love, and are full of the passions and follies of romance. However, while it is easy to envision these songs as archaic poems of the desert with imagery evoking tradition, they are firmly contemporary. There are lines that compare beauty to a Toyota 4×4. There are lyrics that compare love to Kalashnikovs. Heroism and power are illustrated by comparisons to the “Americans who came looking for Saddam Hussein”.

I’ve written before about the two worlds, that of the small cities and villages and that of the bush. There are vast differences between the city and the bush, but my interpretation has always been filtered through the lens of language – the cities, with French speakers that I can understand, the bush with Tamashek speakers that I cannot. It is clearly more complicated than a division of language. But there is certainly a two world dichotomy at play. In the global movement of people from rural to urban lives, there is no more striking example than trading a nomadic tent for a house. There are too many differences between the city and bush to name, but suffice to say that in the camps, there are no guitars. There is only music, or for lack of a better word, isswat.

The reissue of Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud’s 2008 cassette is now available on bandcamp and vinyl.

Tuareg Drone

There are two worlds in the Northern country. If there is any global access to Tuareg culture, it is a window into the city life: the Tuareg who live in places like Kidal, ride motorcycles, swap songs on their cellphone, and dance at the guitar soirees. But outside of the islands of infrastructure, there is another world, a way of living impossible even to the inhabitants of the city. Nomadic families are scattered across the desert, living under tents, surrounded by herds of animals that are both possessions and sustenance. Amongst the majority of families, there is no money, no electricity, no cellular phones, no transport except for your feet. There is, needless to say, no guitar. Conditions in the dry season are difficult and food is sparse. Then finally, Orion disappears from the evening sky for 40 days, and soon the rains come.

The rainy season of the Northern deserts of Mali and Southern Algeria are a time of meeting and celebrations. Nomadic families usually spread out over the parched scrubland gather around the seasonal and intermittent water holes. The animals grow fat and give enough milk to drink to exhaustion. Clothes are cleaned from months of dust and sand and children bath freely in the lakes. Every night, the air is filled with chanting and clapping as the youth play isswat.

Isswat is characterized by singing with a vocal drone. Much like the families who subsist on nearly nothing, the music is sparse and composed of few elements: voice, clapping, stomping, and the drumming on bowls or water drums. The single note drone is accomplished by a circle of men who maintain a low vocal humming while a woman vocalist sings a melody that dances over signature rhythms. (see previously)

For those familiar with Tuareg music, there is something eerily familiar to the guitar based desert rock that has come to define the folk style. Indeed, I’ve heard it said that this was the inspiration for ishumar guitar – rebel fighters in Libyan camps sought to recreate the sound of their far away home, and adapted isswat to the guitar. The guitar melody was created to mimic the female singer, the droning low note of the bass string as the vocal hum.

This recording of Idassane Wallet Mohammed was made in Kidal, Mali in 2008. The Tuareg run studio “Maison de Luxembourg” produced a handful of CDs and cassettes sold in Kidal (It has since been looted and destroyed by the Islamists who briefly occupied the town). The recordings stand out as professional/local Tuareg productions. They are love songs, songs that speak of nomadic life, songs that reference Adrar and local geography. Today, while the guitar music may reign supreme in towns like Kidal, the nomads live in world apart. Isswat is the real music of the desert.

The record is available now from the shop or via bandcamp – a collaboration w/ Mississippi Records. We’ve made 500 of them with handmade covers, a homage to the some of the motifs of Tuareg design.

Below is a video of Idassane Wallet Mohamed performing. Currently she is near the border of Algeria.

the malian cyborg wars

Wandering through Youtube, I recently stumbled across the work of Cheick Ouattara. Amongst the Malian Youtube content – an abundance of music video clips, ripped from the national television, ORTM – this was vastly different. A montage of shots show what is undoubtedly Bamako, with the banks of the Niger and the smoggy sky. But in this Bamako, unbeknownst to the stream of commuters on motorbikes, a giant red dinosaur wreaks havoc, galloping over the bridge and into the center of town – where it meets a young man who can see it, and covers his head as it unleashes a roar. This brief sequence is one of the vast, albeit brief oeuvre of Ouattara, a self taught 3D animator, and the first in Mali to experiment in live action animation.

Cheick runs a small advertising agency in Bamako designing logos and short animation sequences for state television, educational systems, and local NGOs. Using 3D, Java based animation software, Cheick combines live action with computer animation. His short clips on Youtube, from technical test videos and samples, show skeletons dancing in the Niger, X-wings flying over the Niger river, and animated crocodiles. His objective is cinema, and his collective has made some moves in this direction, working on a film for the French Cultural Center and in talks about a movie about Vampire Mosquitoes. “Our difference from other West African filmmakers” Cheick says, “is we want to make films with animation and special effects – science fiction and fantasy films.”

One particular trailer begins with a preamble describing the conflict in the North of Mali against the Islamists, and the resultant effort to create cyborg warriors. The short video shows terminator-esque machines racing Northwards from Douentza, retaking Timbouctou, sauntering before the ancient mosques and libraries. “The idea is,” he explains, “with the war in Mali, people have been asking ‘Who will come to help’? In the film, Malians working abroad create Malian cyborgs. The problem is, when the robots liberate the North, they become their own problem. When you create an artificial intelligence, it wants to preserve its own place. This will create a new problem, between humans and cyborgs.”

Cheick has hope for the film, in among other things, showcasing the unity of the country. “I want to show there is no difference between people. When the resistance starts against the cyborgs, the Tamashek are going to play a big role. They know the most about the desert, and they’ll be the ones who will be fighting the robot war,” he says. “Before everything, they were the masters of the North.”

The intended film will be a mix between live action and animation. Using the Xbox Kinect to capture motion, Cheick intends to trace out the movements of the cyborgs. The film would require filming in the Timbouctou and hours of animation. “We want to simulate a cyborg war,” he explains. It’s a big project, and the short Youtube trailer is just a synopsis to show the possibility of the idea.” And while there is no firm plan or Malian kickstarter to make the vision a reality, Cheikh continues his work – his Youtube stream is available here.

the talking cat of azawad

In the past year, the Northern portion of Mali slipped into chaos, leaving it without military or law. Islamist militants with a bad habit of kidnapping Westerners took control of the cities, and even the most dogged reporters beat a hasty retreat to the capital. Western media empires constructed around the need to report, instead turned to the internet sources, cellphone photos, and cryptic utterances on Facebook walls. Timbuktu was again the fabled city of Caillié, a closed mystery that not even the combined forces of CNN, BBC, RFI, and the mighty Al-Jazeera could penetrate.

It’s not surprising then that the most ambitious sources of Northern Mali “news” has invoked the authority of newsroom reporting. During the past months, “Tamositte n’Azawad” (“the Kitten of Azawad” – facebook) has been issuing broadcasts on the situation in the North, with a penchant for satire and comedy. The creation of a collective of young Tuareg women living abroad in Sweden, Tamositte has been one of the most consistent media voices. Utilizing an iPhone/Android App known as “Talking Tom Cat”, the tool has been transformed into a new media mouthpiece, addressing very specific particulars of the conflict that are glossed over by international media: alliances between MNLA and Ansar Dine, critiques of hypocrisy of the MUJAO factions, and ousting of corrupt politicians.

I spoke to one of the creators of Tamositte. Her goal, she said, was to raise awareness amongst the Tuareg in the North. By connecting with youth in these cloistered towns such as Kidal, she could comment on these topics of discussion concerning the Tuareg community. Tamositte videos have undoubtedly found their way from Facebook and onto cellphones, the messages relayed throughout the scattered populations of the besieged Northern towns with a comic authority that resonates. As the international community advances to chase out foreign extremists in the North, it will be greeted by the Tuareg, but the international media may not be so welcome. A new adversary has taken its place.