Tag Archives: kidal

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.

An open letter to Homeland Security

I was recently stopped again while coming back to the US. It has come to my attention that I am officially a “high risk” category as potential terrorist because of my travels in West Africa, and I’m currently awaiting more documents pertaining to my situation requested via the Freedom of Information Act. The above photo is from a recent meeting with a Homeland Security agent in Minneapolis.

Dear Homeland Security –

While returning from Sweden I was once again pulled aside for a “secondary screening.” This process has become routine to me, and occurs every time I return home. In every airport, it seems to be fairly standardized. I am told to take a seat in a large room that is walled on one side by mirrored glass. A few agents sit behind PCs. They are not smiling. The room is never full, but contains a handful of people, not surprisingly, who are mostly Arab and North African.

At this point, typically, my bags and all my personal belonging are taken and searched. In this most recent case, they are even searched in front of me. There is an agent at the desk who then calls me and asks questions about my travels. If I am returning from Africa, they often include surreal questions about military training and weapons. Sometimes they are merely about the purpose of my trip, my business, the name of my website. They ask for spelling clarifications. Many have never heard of Mali.

Throughout this entire process, the agents are typically rude, barking orders, or making sarcastic quips. The power sits on their side of the desk and I need to be cleared as a suspect. “After all,” they insist, “we are just doing our job.” Going up against any Kafkaesque scenario (a word that the agents, I assume, are unfamiliar with) is unnerving. Given the nature of my work, it is infuriating.

For four years now, I’ve been running a project working in the Sahara desert. It has evolved into a music project, where I regularly travel to West Africa to document and record music, which is then produced and released in America. This project brings me into contact, conversation, and exchange with thousands of regular people. But it also brings me into a corner of the world that has political instability and increasing groups of extremist fundamentalists (who, I feel I should add for your notes, despise popular music).

You are Homeland Security. Your clearly stated mission is “to secure the nation from the many threats we face.” It’s an important mission – one that I should know a lot about, as someone who actually faces those threats in person. In fact, I can say with some confidence that I have more experience with threats than most of your staff. I suffer directly the risks of my nationality, with ever looming threats of assault, kidnappings, and yes, terrorism.

Yet through these potential risks, one of the results of my travels (or ANY travels) is the nullifying effect that they may have on future threats. As a foreigner working abroad I always hear misinformed ideas of Americans and American culture. As the only American around, I am the sounding board, and it is my job to respond to every cultural critique, political act, and the sum of US historical events stretching back to the nation’s founding. It falls on me to act as an ambassador, to represent the entire country and every American, to discredit erroneous politics and propaganda, to quell anger and hatred, and in a personal example, counter the misconceptions that lead to radicalization.

It is evident then, why it should strike me as such an offense to be subjected to this target profiling when I arrive home. My work is a constant effort of defending the country abroad through my actions. I am American, the American who is out there, in the world, under threat of terrorism, promoting the values you intend to proclaim. And yet, on arrival in my own country, I am treated as a potential terrorist myself. I would ask, no demand, that you remove me from this list.

This is my country. You work for me. Please remember that.

Christopher Kirkley

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.

Amanar, Remixed

amanar remix

Amanar, the modern guitar Tuareg band from Northern Mali has been featured frequently on this site (1, 2) and numerous vinyl compilations. Their 2008 sessions, recorded locally in Kidal, are high energy guitar pop. While inspired by the preceding repertoire of guitar music, the album marked a departure from the mold of Western conceptions of Tuareg rock. Celebrated by the youth, Amanar rose to the status of town band in the desert capital of Kidal.

French label Reaktion released the sessions of Alghafiat in 2010 for digital download. This year, in collaboration with Portland label Little Axe Records, we’ve pressed 1000 copies on vinyl. Drawing on some of the original artwork for the release, the text of the album is in Tifinagh, as well as the liner notes, which were fastidiously translated by Hamza Mohamed Fofo, probably the world’s leading expert on the script.

I thought it might be time for a remix competition. I’ve been sitting on the original files, possibly the only copies since the studio was recently destroyed by extremists. The song “Tenere,” (“desert” in the Tamashek language) was a hit in the Kidal concerts. The lyrics contain inherent messages like most guitar songs, this one invoking the desert in the metaphorical sense as a place of retreat: “It’s better to be alone than with a bad friend.”

Amanar – Tenere (original)

You can download the stems here.

Remix or reinterpret, and send the completed file back (please include your name in the file). The remixes will go up on a Bandcamp EP for free download. Maybe if there’s a real great one we can talk about putting out a 7″. Please get your remix in by October 1st – you can send them via email to ckirkley (at) gmail.com. Happy remixing!

windmills of your mind

Régime De La Terreur: Ansar Dine has invaded the North of Mali, imposing a Taliban style Sharia. A cut to turbaned men breaking glass, overturning plastic crates of amber beer bottles, shouting ‘Allah Akbar.” It’s vicious, yet the religious fervor seems a bit staged. They are excited, not with righteousness, but with the spectacle. They are all too aware and like goofy kids are starstruck. After all, much like the towns under Sharia, the beer bottles are empty.

In the next cut, we see a young man smashing a carved wooden statue against the ground while onlookers gather. His efforts are futile, the statue is difficult to break. The central idea is that this is an idol and prohibited by Islam. Maybe we’re meant to believe this is was forcibly requisitioned from a practitioner’s home. One of Ansar Dine, with a boyish grin, launches into an explanation: “This is a sin, we can’t bow before this statue like this.” But this statue is Dogon — it is clearly not from a home, but from one of the three or four tourist shops lining Askia Mohamed Blvd. It is as foreign here as Ansar Dine. The turbaned man again picks up the little statuette and throws it against the pavement in what is clearly an all too alluring spectacle for the camera, violently smashing a tourist trinket (an act who’s ironic metaphor is all too obvious). Meanwhile a crowd gathers; they’ve not been rounded up or forced here at gunpoint. They’ve come to watch the circus.


(source: RTBF)

Fadikanda is a popular personage in Northern Mali, a large woman with a clear and severe mental affliction but an unwavering dedication to every musical festival, political rally, and trade fair. Rumored to have the ear of former president ATT, she is allowed to wander onto a stage during a performance, her unpredictable behavior forcing the officials to humor her and the crowds to let her indulge in Quixotic fantasy. She polices the events, walking around with a stick, violently chastising children who swim around her like a school of fish, taunting and darting in unison out of her path as she lunges. With her unkempt hair and ragged clothing, she is regarded as a comedic character or a jester. In her delusion, she is providing order to the mass (her delusion is rarely tested though somewhere deep in the recess she knows her limits and therefore raises her stick only against the fearful and outmatched children.) For Fadikanda, the gathering crowds are a testament to her force, an ode to her power.


(source: cellphone, Kidal, Mali, 2010)

Fadikanda is a modern folk character, and while once limited to an existence in oral histories, she has now been transposed to the cellular phone. In fact, videos of the mentally ill populate the terrain of personal video collections: Fadikanda, the wandering minstrel “Marchand du Soleil,” or the young man from Abeibara who’s head injury inspires these long comedic poetries.) The camera and the crowd have an inspiring effect on their subjects. Much like the antics of Fadikanda, the characters of Ansar Dine can be lured into delusions of grandeur, elated by a few bored children gathering in the streets of Timbouctou with cellphones or enlivened through the lens of an international news report. Yet their actions are regarded with the mocking curiosity assigned to the mentally ill: “What will they do next?” And if one watches the video closely, it is not fear in the eyes of the civilians of Timbouctou — their presence alone refutes this — but the eyes of those watching the circus, gathering for the spectacle of the clown, the insane, the foreign zealot who smashes a wooden trinket stolen from a tourist shop with a bizarre frenzy in the street.