photo: b. conrad lau
“Is it true that during the Tuareg rebellion that started in 1990, he waged war against the Malian government with a Kalashnikov and a Stratocaster strapped across each shoulder? ‘That’s exactly what happened,’ he says softly.”
“Sands of Fate.” Peter Culshaw, Feb. 18 2007
Kidal is just about two miles square. It is a tiny unassuming blip on the map. Insignificant and secreted away in the far Northeastern corner of Mali, it feels shuffled aside, quarantined by empty desert. It’s a misleading image, this figurative isolation and unimportance. Not long ago, the region was the heart of a rebellion that threatened the North of the country. Lying along a major trans-saharan route, truckloads of refugees from war-torn states and smugglers of South American cocaine pass just outside the town in the night. And recently, the surrounding desert has become a haven for the Algerian franchise of Al-Qaedi.
Nestled in the Adrar D’Ifoghas, a massif of craggy black rock mountains and scorched earth, Kidal is the administrative and cultural home of the Malian Tuareg. The Tuaregs have long figured into Western romantic indulgences, mysterious and dangerous “blue men” living in the inhospitable Sahara. The image is one that has been thoroughly explored and exploited, particularly by the French, in that bizarre inversion where former enemies become the celebrated heroes of the new generation.
The most recent fascination with the Tuareg is less about nomads and camels and more to do with guns and guitars. The electrified Tuareg rebel rock, epitomized by the band Tinariwen, has traveled far beyond the city’s edge. Thrust into the world, the musical export has done it’s best to convey a reality, though mired in exoticism and the journalistic hyperbole. Yet the distinctive culture of the guitar continues to thrive, becoming the characteristic sound of the urban Tuareg – and like Kidal, subject to the myriad of forces shaping the town.
Crammed inside our little vessel, we shake and clatter up into the mountains. The vehicle is some modified abomination crafted specifically for the voyage, the bulky engine of a flat bed truck dragging some semblance of a passenger cab onto which teetering baggage has been affixed. The roof bulges and buckles under the loaded weight with a loud metal banging. I try to sleep. The tumultuous kinetics of the vehicle make it difficult. Cemented in claustrophobic immobility amongst sacs of rice, bags of clothing, imported blankets, and plastic coolers of fish, we rumble off to the end of the world.
The journey is slated to take ten hours. Swirling with dust and humid sweat, we continue well through the day and into the evening before we crest the last ridge, a massive boulder-strewn field, to enter Kidal. The mud brick houses lay out in the depression, the same color as the drab earth, as though the town had simply risen from the ground. Though an uninspiring sight, a silent cheer wells up as we roll into town.
The city of Kidal was founded some hundred years ago as a French military fort. The remoteness of the location suggests a colonial Siberia where despondent captains were banished for egregious transgressions. Perhaps they were simply drawn to the silence of the desert. But over the years the city has grown to far surpass the original fort, the remnants of the era resigned to a few crumbling buildings of pale brick, unremarkable and encompassed by the town.
There is a prodigious use of space that is common to desert towns, and the houses sit in huge courtyards behind high mud walls. The blocks are long. Little trickles of drainage from the bath wander out into the street, cutting ravines into the dirt road, pockmarked and uneven. The neighborhoods that radiate from the center of the town, bustle with unofficial commerce. Tired women in shoddy stalls stand watch over shriveled and sunken vegetables, while nearby men slow roast meats and wrap orders in paper torn from old concrete bags. Sonrai and Bambara boutiques populate every corner selling everything and nothing: tea, charcoal, phone credit, and wine bottles of gasoline. The central market is the functional center of the city, alongside a bank, a school, and a small garden of struggling twisted acacia.
Out at the edges of town there are a few of the development and governmental offices of a modern but undeniably paltry construction. Radio antennas sprout from the brackish stucco, satellite links and communication to the greater world. White statuesque SUVs are parked outside, marked with logo and cryptic agency acronyms. A lone guard lounges outside each office with bored indifference, leaning on an elbow while sipping a tepid cup of tea. From there, the city diminishes at the edges of town, to a few lonely houses, before it drops away into the desert. In the distance, the desert ebbs in low foothills, and the west is marked by the peaks of three small mountains.
The sandy streets are crowded for the evening promenade. The sun, relinquishing its grasp on the town, sinks into the narrow band of dust that floats on the horizon. The air is filled movement, puttering motorbikes and scooters, the shuffling walk of the elderly and the hurried pace of youth. The young students wear turbans as an accessory, marching along the street, the girls in subdued shawls that sparkle nonetheless. Hotshot military recruits in pale camouflage tear down the street in gun mounted land cruisers. Chattering maids from Dogon country giggle in unknown languages balancing bags on their heads. Parading through the chaos and clouds of dust, the promenade passes with bold indifference.
Aghaly, one of Kidal’s young musicians, and I pass the center market, with its proliferation of imported Chinese made stuff, its smattering of musty boutiques and leaning stalls descending back into narrow alleys. The commerce has ended for the day and ghostly donkeys mope the abandoned rows amidst the wind tossed trash. Giant trucks, dark green behemoths of flaking rust idle nearby, belching black puffs of smoke. In their shadows, the exhausted drivers slouch on the ground against the heavy wheels, fanning tiny charcoal stoves until the tea froths and boils over to a chorus of clanking metal and cursing.
Aghaly is a tall and lanky character. He punctuates his speaking with exaggerated motions, comic were it not for his overarching cool. Wearing a pristine white tracksuit and sneakers, his gaze is hidden behind a pair of mirrored sunglasses perched on his nose. Aghaly is a member of the guitar band Tamikrest, and as we stroll along he occasionally interrupts with a forgiving grin as he responds to the myriad of salutations, the chattering young girls, and the honks and shouts of passing motorbikes. He exudes the confidence convincing of a local star.
Tamikrest was formed in Kidal but has been recently launched into the international circuit. Their label has dubbed them “spiritual sons of Tinariwen,” suggesting either hopeful ambitions or clever marketing. It is a difficult road to follow in the massive footsteps of their predecessors, and there is no shortage of other bands attempting to do the same. Tuareg guitar is rooted in rock gods Tinariwen, a collective of the musically inclined from the Kidal region who forged their sounds in refugee and military training camps in the 1980s. When they returned home, they settled into the cities and the droning nostalgic guitar integrated itself into the fabric.
Tinariwen themselves are a recent global export with only a decade of international recognition. But here in the desert they are historic figures with nearly thirty years of popularity. Their songs are not simply popular music but literal folk anthems, ingrained in the collective consciousness. Tamikrest has adapted the stylings of their predecessors, the electric guitar with the wistful pentatonic melodies. But rather than rebellion, these are romantic ballads enrapturing and resonating with the youth.
I prod Aghaly to speak to me about music, but our conversation flounders and drifts back to their upcoming European tour. “We’re going to play in Paris,” Aghaly says, his nonchalant fame betrayed by a wide smile spreading over his face. “The other day, I spoke to a journalist…”
We arrive at a friend’s restaurant adjacent to the market. Sitting along the wobbly wooden benches are a few acquaintances of the group, the location one of the common rendez-vous points of the band. Errant goats pick through the strewn trash in the road, dodging the noisy roar of the passing motorbikes.
“Tamanrasset isn’t like this,” Aghaly begins, gesturing despairingly. “There are paved roads, streetlights. I came here in 1996, you know. I didn’t grow up here.”
Aghaly, like many of the youth was raised in forced exile. The inter-ethnic conflicts of the last decades transformed Kidal into a militarized zone, a sort of occupied territory. Many of the Tuareg fled to the larger desert capitals. But in the past years as the city has returned to a tenuous peace prompting a huge return, and in just ten years the population has nearly doubled. The youth have brought a new element to the backwater, sporting new fancy clothing and cellphones, demanding the inevitable Western influences and contagious cultural trappings. There’s a few local Tamashek rap groups that have been experimenting with the sound — Tamikrest themselves recorded one, but it was later cut from the album in an effort to preserve authenticity.
The urban Tamashek youth with their multicolored turbans and sharp clothing are from the desert, but not a few have spend their time in the capitals — the more affluent shooting off to Bamako or Tamanrasset for a brief respite from the desert. And while there is always a brief visit to the desert, the nomad existence couldn’t be further from the life of the town.
“In one of our songs, we tell people to come back. To return to the desert,” he explains. “We say, ‘You’ve quit your life in the desert, and come to the city because you think life is easier. But one day you’re going to regret what you’ve left behind.’”
“You want people to return to the nomadic life?” I ask.
“No,” he says, confused. “The desert — to return to Kidal.”
A friend nearby laughs. “He means Kidal. Look around, this is the desert.”
“The nomads are the real Tamashek.” he says. “We’re…bootleg Tamashek.” They laugh.
The nomad Tuareg are spoken of by their cousins in the city with a mixture of mythic reverence and pitying superiority. The Arab word for country person, “ezeebekad”, is used here in the pejorative. They occasionally drift into town, old haggard dusty men, withered and aged with deep lines in their faces. Carrying staffs and rusting swords, they herd terrified braying flocks of goats and sheep through the busy street. In the roar of the city, they seem anachronistic, as though they’ve wandered in from some other world.
Like an island resting in a vacuous wasteland, Kidal easily lends itself to poetic indulgence. The metaphor is an intrinsically attractive one. The borders of town, though unmarked, are dotted by pup tents and armored vehicles, police and customs officers guarding the perimeter from some unknown and unseen enemy. Outside this line, the city suddenly falls away. The buildings and streets devolve into featureless tracks of brush and spindly trees. The roaring hush of emptiness fills the air. Journeying through the empty sands is not unlike being tossed upon the sea. The air even smells of salinity, and one can almost hear the hushing crash of waves just over the next ridge.
At the end of the cold season, I find myself huddled down under a tent in the Sahara. There are but a few families here, a handful of adults and twenty or so children. The camels leave after the first prayer and wont be seen from the camp until sunset. They wander further from home, ambling along and ripping off woody thorns with their mouths and rendering them splinters. The days at the camp drag by at a geological pace. The days are filled with flies. They’re incalculable in number, relentless, incessant. Like most things, after awhile I don’t much notice them anymore.
In the early evening the children gather about my tent. One of the visiting neighbors is fiddling with an ancient cassette deck. He cracks it open and fumbles with the grossly oversized innards, stripping a wire between his teeth. The children sit and watch the operation attentively. The radio sputters to life with a recording of Tamashek guitar. The cassette is old and warped by consecutive seasons of Saharan sun, and the sound warbles in and out.
Later in the evening the stars are spread out over the sky. Over the dark mountain silhouette to the East we can see the faint dissipated glow of Kidal. The younger children have never been there. They reclaim the radio left by the neighbor and the music crackles. Akli and Teyti jump to their feet, pulling their cousins, short little girls all swathed in blue robes. They dance in an imitation of a concert in Kidal, waving their hands in a fury, while the girls clap and yell, crying in ululation. The youngest, Maroniya, has torn a scrap of paper into confetti and she tosses a handful over the dancers while yelling “Money, money!” as the boys laugh. Exhausted, the radio sputters and coughs. The music wails and falls silent. Akli examines it for a moment, then curses something in Tamashek before hurling it out into the darkness.
Before I depart two weeks later, I find the pieces of the radio sticking out of the sand, already buried by the desert. When I return to Kidal the city seems bigger.
We’re sitting around at Ahmed’s compound in the late evening when band member Yusuf arrives. Thin foam cushions have been thrown down in the dirt courtyard in a semicircle around a fire. Shadows dance on the chest high mud walls as a few of the band strum absently at guitars. Yusuf greets the others and slinks into the darkness. A few words are exchanged in Tamashek, followed by a sputtering of laughter. “Yusuf, he has no hair! Touch his head.” Hiding below his turban his thick bouffant has been reduced to nothing, the initiative step of the military recruitment.
Any conversation of Tamashek guitar will inevitably at this point delve into a description of Tuareg rebellion. In its entirety the subject spans decades of nearly incomprehensible geopolitical complexity. Vaguely rooted in long standing ethnic conflicts that plague Africa, the rebellion erupted in the 1960s as the new post-Colonial states divided the historic Tuareg territory. In each country, a minority confined to the inaccessible drought stricken wastes, the Tuareg were quickly marginalized and forgotten. Independence had arrived with promise of autonomy and wealth and they felt deceived. Series of violent rebellions and counter attacks continued, fluctuating in intensity until the present day.
Often the rebels sought refuge in the remote regions encircling Kidal, so as to designate the region as the “heart” of the rebellion. Yet the number of young Tamashek of Kidal in service of the former enemy is a head scratching contradiction. The rebellion may be passe, but the reprehensible acts have yet to be confined to the dustbin of history. Positions in the military account for a staggering majority of jobs for unemployed youth in Kidal. In essence, this is an exact result of the rebellion — one of the stipulations of the peace accords. Secured placement in paid positions, the Malian state gained useful allies in securing the desert.
Yusuf is a quiet shy kid, not hardly the type cut for military engagement. As the band jokes and plays with the guitar, Yusuf plays with his cellphone. He cycles through the videos, the montages and “souvenirs” that are traded via Bluetooth transfers. The early songs of Tinariwen were traded too, albeit in a different fashion, via a network of cassettes. One of the more notable montages is a slideshow of photos of fresh faced Tamashek recruits in Malian state uniform proudly posing with all manner of weapons. Incidentally, the accompanying song is one of the rebel anthems composed in the Libyan training camps — when fighting the Malian state. The images continue in this incredulous fashion as the photos of the military recruits are interspersed with current rebel-in-exile Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, gun mounted beige Toyota Land Cruisers, a United States military tank, even a screen capture from “24” of an anguished Jack Bauer, gun drawn.
If the massive enrollment has accomplished anything, it’s in the dispersal of the youth in a second exodus. But it has also aided in a distinct hyper-militancy, and a fascination with weaponry. The image of the Kalashnikov and guitar is presented to exhaustion by Western journalists, unable to pass on the alluring visceral combination of rebellion and music. But the perpetuating story is not just a Western fabrication, but as a functional mythic ideal even in the desert, in the age of broken rebellions.
“Take the guitar,” someone says, encouraging Yusuf to play for us. Yusuf, the new recruit, takes the guitar and plays a song. Fittingly, it’s one of the old rebel anthems.
“And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.”
- Waiting for the Barbarians, Constantine P. Cavafy
In the blistering sun of midday, we retreat inside. Between thick mud walls, the cavernous dark space is just barely distinguishable. A diffuse light filters through a sheet hanging over the doorway. My eyes slowly adjust to the opium den haze, the room is crowded with youth sprawled out and sitting, half asleep, or playing away the time in the fuzzy haze.
The ishumar (a corruption of chômeur, french for unemployed), have the ability to pass the days in impassive silence and immune from the boredeom from information intensive existences in the west. A unique feature to these slow moving corners of the world. The repetition leaves the days begging for distinction amongst the unrelenting cups of deeply bitter tea, throat searing knock off cigarettes, and giant bricks of brown hashish. Clarification is revealed through the rare punctuated event: the “day of the baptism in Al-youn”, the “night of the Minister’s soiree,” or the “concert in Bellabougou.” Sayni asks me to play back a recording from “the other night, you know, when we made tea…” I make a sarcastic quip that is not acknowledged.
Ahmed is the leader of the group Amanar. He is tall and potentially imposing, but soft spoken and of few words. Always clad in a turban, his age is uncertain and both of his state identifications bear different dates. He “probably lies somewhere in the middle,” which would place him in his late thirties. His compound is divided into two houses. One, where he lives with his wife and two children, and the other, which houses most of the itinerant band members and family members that wander through town. The latter appear and disappear unexpectedly.
A professional musician, he lives by the guitar. The old griots of Kidal, West African traditional bards who serenaded their courtesans for favors are out of fashion, resigned to a historical footnote. Now it is the guitar bands who hold sway, and the few Kidal bands compete in a sometimes vicious struggle for paying gigs. As modern entertainers they are not strictly bound to the rules of the old musical caste and are almost expected to speak candidly. Ahmed goes as far to even critique the elements at the foundation of the musical creation. “I went to Libya, I trained in the camp. What have we gained in the rebellion?” Ahmed scoffs. “The first thing they do after they reach an agreement is send Tamashek into the military. If they really were about helping the Tamashek, they would build a university here.”
In the midst of the inter-ethnic open violence of the rebellions, distinctions were simple. Bambara recruits tramped off into the town and the surrounding brousse, gunning down families, poisoning wells, raping and carrying out the standard ethnic genocidal activities. With the end of the dictatorship, a slow integration of Tuareg into the social order of the state was initiated. Accompanying this was a huge influx of international aide. Kidal soon saw the emergence of a new upper class of Tuaregs, a wealthy elite working for state offices and non governmental foreign agencies.
“People say we should sing about rebellion. Why? So I can tell the young kids to go out into the mountains and grab their guns? Until there are no Tamashek left?” The others in the room sit quietly while he is speaking. “I say that the desert was good before. I say that we need more intellectuals. I say, watch out for the Tamashek who don’t understand the word democracy, especially the politicians.” The youth, the young members of the band sit around in respective silence. It is a one of an old custom still observed as Ahmed speaks. “This,” he says, pausing for effect, “is the real rebellion.”
“My poor little soul who, despite her beauty will disappear one day,
What nostalgia she’ll leave…” “Izelamine” Amanar
As a sound born in exile, the guitar is not from the city. Even the name by which it is often referred, Teshumara, invokes the Tamashek word for the unemployed and wandering voyager. But as the city builds out in the desert, the wail of the guitar has merged with the life of electrified urbanity. Nowhere is this more apparent than the creation of the “guitar” – a word that indicates both the music and the event of live performance.
The dark has fallen over the city when the first quivering notes of the guitar ring out. Crouching around bowls, in the respective pause between grabbing a handful, heads cock slightly, determining the origin of the sound. Ah, guitar, they conclude, with a knowing smile. The sound continues, careening over the little square mud houses with their satellite dishes, over the hill of the slave quarter and the stone grave mounds of the unknown dead, across the sand river and between the swaying palm, past the military barracks before diffusing and disappearing into the vastness of the desert.
As is the custom, a few of the band members have been sent to the venue preceding the concert to announce the guitar to the town. The crash of drums and the bending pitch of a tuned note, the microphone pops and thuds as the equipment is tested and the electricity hums is a call to the city. Music travels far in the night of the desert. In years past, the thump of the tende, the low drum would be used to transmit messages in sound.
To the source of the siren call, the denizens of the town slowly make their pilgrimage. White headlights of motorcycles streak by, the others travel on foot, ghostly shapes carousing through the dark streets. At the “Maison du Luxembourg,” a bright lamp at the far Eastern edge of town, a crowd is forming. As the name suggests, the “Maison” was a gift from the government of Luxembourg and over the past few years has become Kidal’s premier venue. It is a pinkish fortress, the alternating battlement frieze reminiscent of a castle. A wide set of stairs lead to a series of heavy wooden doors, ornate and decorated with insets of etched glistening metal, massive doorknobs of rounded steel. The youth who cannot afford the ticket line the outside, lurking about, bickering with one another and awaiting a momentary lapse of the door security to rush by. The Bambara policemen working the front door is clad in a uniform of royal blue and black beret. He has a long club, and occasionally chases back the youth in a snarl in a continuous game.
Through the door, the crowds of the well dressed of Kidal have gathered in an ornate display. Assiduously applied perfume wafts in the air admist the rustling swish of excessive fabrics. The men are wrapped about in lengthy turbans tied to a perfection — a menagerie of greens, oranges, beige, and pinks, long shirts of sparking bazzin that sway down past their knees. The women are not hidden as much as exuberantly accesorized by the material that hangs around their faces, glistening shawls that ululate in the light. Not the solid dark indigo of the desert, but intoxicating patterns and psychedelic technicolor.
The open air courtyard has been filled with chairs, but for the section directly below the stage. Large mats and rugs have been laid down here, forming a sizable rectangle, a small dancefloor. As the announcer takes the microphone, he makes a call for the next dance group to step to the front, to which a few young men rush forward. He makes an impassioned plea for “three at a time please.” The six men stand their ground stubbornly, each refusing to relinquish his place. The announcer pleads, the band strikes a few awkward riffs. Finally, a few of the party step down and off the mat, blushing and joking. “Merci, merci,” the announcer calls, announcing the group. And the band begins to play.
The men clap their hands and shuffle about for a moment, before a few women jump forward and bustle out of the crowd to accompany them. Standing across from one another, the three couples dance, a respective distance apart, a simple step side to side, waving their arms in striking poses. Turbans flail about as the women deftly turn and trace circles with delicate wrists, sending the billowing fabrics waving. Suddenly, the refrain breaks, and the two sides step towards one another and spin about, switching sides, to the shouts and hollers of the crowd. The band plays on.
The contemporary sound of the city, the soiree continues through until around midnight. The band, noting the hour, breaks into their final song, a trademark track that always seems to indicate the end of the guitar. The floor and the aisles are filled in frenzy as everyone takes to their feet to enjoy the last dance. Not halfway through the song, in a chaotic exit the women pour out the doors and down the steps, the young men in pursuit, vying for the chance to offer a ride home on the back of their polished motorcycles. Before the song is even finished, the “Maison” is nearly empty.
Outside in the night, near the bottom of the steps, an old woman is dancing. She has unkempt grey hair dangling about her bare shoulders, her clothing hanging loosely like her aged skin. She’s shouting and flailing wildly, a wide smile on her face. While in reverie, she pauses occasionally to shout unintelligible declarations and chastise the youth, before turning her eyes upwards and continuing her vigil. She is a fixture in Kidal, like the old fort, the boulders at the edge of town, the ancient crocodile, the mythic ghosts. They say her child was killed in one of the old rebellions, and that it drove her insane. No one pays her too much mind. She keeps dancing into the clamor of the final notes as the youth rush out into the street and fire up their motorcycles, spinning about in wide circles, driving the dust into the sky that glows like the day.