Tag Archives: rebellion

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.

the last recordings of gao

In February of 2012, I visited Gao. The rebellion had just begun and every day the bus station was flooded with refugees from Kidal, climbing out of the cramped cars, carrying everything in bulging plastic sacks. Many came here to the city by the river for safety while the situation in the Northern outpost town resolved itself. Surely Gao, with its modern infrastructure, paved highway linking it with Bamako and Niamey, and huge military bases, including over a hundred American soldiers and an army of black Humvees, would never fall into chaos.

Radio Takamba – ATT Presidential address in Sonrai

For three days, I stayed with the musician Moussa Sidi. His house lay on the edge of the city, on the fringes where banco and concrete homes are sparse and the desert begins, a foreboding challenge to the perceived security. It’s an Arab neighborhood as “there really is no Tuareg neighborhood in Gao,” Moussa explained but only the painful ghost of one – the Kounta quarter, not far from Moussa’s, where the ruins speak of one of the worst massacres of the last rebellion: “The old marabout gathered up everyone in his house and told them if it was there time, it was God’s decision, and the soldiers bombarded the houses and slaughtered them all.”

Moussa’s walls are two stories high, and I idly passed the days watching the patch of vibrant blue and the suns slow tracking arc, waiting for Ahmed from Amanar to come join us. In the evening, Moussa and his friends would discuss the latest over cigarettes and guitar. They were brimming with excitement of the coming rebellion, the updates received over the cellular newsreel called in from Menaka and Kidal. To be clear, it was not just young Tuareg but Pulaars and Sonrai. When, Ousmane a young Sonrai teacher proclaimed “we all want Azawad, because Azawad is for all of us,” I could almost believe him, but for a blind idealism and certain callousness. Later that night when Sekou (a friend from Alkibar Gignor) called me from his town where the army garrison was under attack and gunshots crackled through the cellphone speaker, I could hear the fear in his voice. Sitting beneath the brilliant Gao starlight, Moussa’s friends chuckled. “It’s the rebellion!” they proclaimed, victory in their voices, Azawad in their eyes. I recorded Moussa in a few sessions, but we were hardly friends, his extortion of money from me and Ahmed made the house a prison of inconvenience, and when we later fled, it was as much to escape the situation as it is the realization that with a price on my head, we could no longer trust him. In a bold move, I told Ahmed I would delete all of the music I recorded, that my power was in deleting him. He would learn that an archivist can preserve history but also destroy it. I almost do it.

Moussa Sidi

It’s nearly half a year later and Gao, the bastion of the North is nearly empty, a case study in the progression of the “rebellion” – a loose coalition chased out government, followed by a dissolution of the coalition into multi-party civil conflict. My personal communication with the North comes in series of cryptic and conflicting text messages and stilted phone conversations, with names of friends who have died in the fighting, lamentations of economic disaster, and rumors of exodus. The last I saw of Intriya was on this Al-Jazeera video, Horostar is unreachable, and Amanar is dispatched into the far corners of the diaspora.

It’s often difficult to place these recordings in a temporal context, even for myself. It’s easy to forget that a sound recording a historical document, that in the act of recording it becomes an anachronistic artifact. In a sparsity of information, these media clips can dominate the cyber soundscape and resonate for undue lifespans allowing the sounds to continue to speak with a timeless authority. As the North has ignited into chaos, it is a reminder to the dynamism of places and people – and not simply because of the shifting movements and disrupted lives, but because of the media coming from the North, as expatriates, political propagandists, news agencies and bloggers clamor over one another for the most up to date and relevant information.

In a cellphone conversation a few days ago with Boubou, a soft spoken Sonrai percussionist who taught the youth of Amanar, I prod him for information on the MNLA and the Salafistes, the politics of Al-Qaedi and his opinions and theories. The town has been taken over by the “Al-Qaedi” he explains. They’re redefining the city and changing the past, destroying historic sites as idols and burning instruments they consider harem. The electricity is out, food is expensive, and there is hardly anyone left. He has no money to move his entire family to Bamako. The question of Azawad, of a sharia state in the North, of the MNLA, or of a return to Mali is inconsequential to the immediate. In the silences over the scratchy reception, I hear the sound of a ravaging storm. “Moussa, the guitarist, you remember?” he asks. “I went to his house, even he’s gone. I don’t know where. When I looked around, all I found was the charred remains of his guitar and amplifier.”

Bus leaving Gao

That ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it…

The Tuaregs consist of a variety of tribes, stretching across the center of the Saharan desert, East of Mauritania, across Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya. In the past, the Western association was with “blue men” in the desert, the fierce resistance to colonization, the romantic myth of the desert nomad. Today it is impossible for the West to speak of Tuareg without the obligatory reference to the Tuareg guitar.

Koma and Attaye, two acoustic guitars in Kidal

The Tamashek guitar, or “ishumar” (A French deriviation of chomeur, or “unemployed”) was borne in the rebellion. After the first rebellion, the youth that had left for Libya for military training in the war with Chad returned to Mali — without any education or opportunity.

Interview with Initriy and Tahieat (French)

Origins are difficult to ascertain, but Tinariwen of Tessalit, Mali are popularly considered the pioneers. The music of Tinariwen is traded across Mali, via the Tamashek. Numbering only 600,000 but stretching over thousands of kilometers — the Malian Tamashek community is like a small town, and everyone knows everyone. But the heart is definitely in the North of the country.

Ishumar guitar music is preferably played with the electric guitar (for its responsive touch, both solo and rhythm) bass, percussion (calabas, djembe, or drum kit), and singing and hand claps. It is almost always played in a pentatonic scale (familiar immediately for the “blues” component), with a droning bass note and syncopated treble that accompanies the singing. One chord is often sufficient. but with tremolos and impressive solos. A friend remarks that tremolo of “false” notes are what separate Tamashek guitar from Sonrai guitar. “It plays better with the way they speak.” And certainly, the language Tamashek is full of bent and ululated vowels, placing it closer to Arabic in sound then with its cousins to the South. While the music has certain roots in traditional Tamashek guitar, the influence of Western music (cassettes of Bob Marley and Jimmy Hendrix most substantially) cannot be ignored. And today, as is common throughout the Sahara, the favorite guitarist amongst the younger generation: Dire Straits.

Talking with a former rebel/musician: “Dire Straits is the number one guitarist for the Tamashek. If he held a concert here…no…all the Tuareg – Algeria, Libya, Niger – would come to Kidal.” Mark Knopfler, are you listening?

Abba and Ahmedou Ag with acoustic guitar, Timbouctou
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Sarid Ag and Doni with electric guitar, Kidal
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