On Tinariwen, and the forgotten war in Mali

Sometimes, civil war in Africa can even bring suffering to the well-heeled patrons of the International Festival of the Arts in Wellington. Tinariwen, the Tuareg rock group from Mali, is due to perform at the Arts Festival tonight – which is big news for anyone who has followed the band’s steady ascent from being indie darlings on the Pitchfork website to their gig late last year on the Stephen Colbert show with TV On the Radio, and this year’s Grammy award for the best World Music album of 2011.

Yet thanks to the upheaval in northern Mali, two key members of the band – vocalist Ibrahim Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, and guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid – remain trapped in a Tuareg refugee camp on the border with Algeria, and have been unable to get out of Mali in time to join the tour.

That’s tough luck for anyone who paid full price to see Tinariwen, who will be playing tonight only as a four piece – it could be a bit like seeing the Rolling Stones minus Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. (Hey, in time of war we all have to suffer.) An interesting sidelight of Tinariwen’s presence here is that they inadvertedly serve as a reminder of how skewed the international media’s coverage of world events commonly is.

We are daily being bombarded with images and coverage of the horrible atrocities in Syria, partly because the fall of the Assad regime is very much in the strategic interests of the United States and its regional ally, Israel, and would usefully serve to isolate Iran within the Middle East. By contrast, the fighting in Mali – which threatens to destabilise much of North Africa and has created a wave of 200,000 refugees since January, has barely rated a mention.

Of all the countries of North Africa, Mali has been the one most effected by the successful revolution against Muammar Gaddafi last year in Libya. Formerly, Tuareg fighters who had been displaced by the periodic struggles for independence in Mali – these struggles date back to the 7th century – had ended up in Libya, where they were armed and trained by the military forces of Gaddafi.

With Gaddafi’s fall, hundreds of the Tuareg fighters have returned to Mali, bringing their heavy weaponry home with them. As a result, the MLNA (Mouvement de Liberation National Azawad) is now more of an even match for the 7,500 strong Malian military – and since January, the fighting between the MNLA and the Malian army has markedly increased in the drought and famine-stricken region of north Mali in which Tinariwen first came together, and where they still live.

Tinariwen are a product of the Tuareg refugee camps, and their support for Tuareg independence has never been in doubt. The track “Mano Dayak” on their album Aman Iman: Water is Life album for instance, is a celebration of the Tuareg writer and freedom fighter of the same name, who died in suspicious circumstances in a plane crash in 1995.

The current military struggle between the MNLA and the Mali regime is only half of the story, though. Reportedly, the Tuareg cause has gone beyond any offers of regional autonomy in the north, and they are now pushing for outright independence in a homeland comprised of Mali’s three northern regions of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gau – and this is a hair-raising prospect for other North African regimes that have large, restive and nomadic Tuareg/Berber populations, scattered across Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali and Niger. (In this respect, the plight of the Tuaregs is akin to the Kurds in the Middle East.)

To complicate matters further, the MNLA cause has been publicly endorsed by the remnants of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – a Salafist group based in Algeria that used to be known as the notorious GSPC during the Algerian civil war. The AQIM endorsement has provided the Mali regime with a golden opportunity to scare up American support against the Tuaregs, some of whom, it must be said, are as much interested in gaining control of the smuggling trade in that region of the Sahara as they are in political liberation per se. Reportedly, US special forces are now operating inside Mali, and are working alongside the Malian Army in the current fighting against the MNLA/AQIM forces.

The situation could hardly be more volatile. Each returnee from Libya used to support seven people by their employment with Gaddafi’s military, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration. Back home now – and against a backdrop of drought and famine – they are reportedly joining up with other displaced Malians recently returned from the Ivory Coast, which saw its economy destroyed by last year’s civil conflict, and with other Malian refugees from northern Nigeria, which is being wracked by an uprising led by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram.

This convergence of displaced and desperate people brings with it the potential for general conflict across the entire Sahara region. The more likely outcome is for the continued suppression of the Tuareg aspirations for independence, and the perpetuation of their hand to mouth struggle for survival, in some of the harshest and most beautiful environments on the planet. (One of the aims of the Tuareg uprising is a fairer share of Mali’s natural resources.) Tinariwen, even in its truncated form, will bring something of this reality home on stage in Wellington tonight. One reviewer has described their blend of Western, North African and Middle Eastern musical elements in these terms:

They applied Western instruments to the traditions of home: gnarled picking patterns from West African lutes, call-and-response vocals, three-against-two rhythms, a high descant sharing a melody, the modes and inflections of North African and Arabic music. The melodies are as straightforward as folk tunes, but they tug against the harmony in ways different from Western pop or rock, and the vocals stay unpolished… Tinariwen’s songs extend minimal materials over time. Instrumental passages are more like incantations than solo and backup; guitar lines are bonded to the rhythm, with a twang glinting through now and then. The songs are comparable, inevitably, to a journey through a desert landscape that only appears unchanging to those who don’t perceive its details. A vocal quaver, a guitar trill, some new quick notes in a bass line, a flicker of extra drumming or a burst of ululation from the group’s female singer, Wonou Wallet Sidati, all became events. When some songs picked up speed, in triplet rhythms… they sounded ecstatic…

Ultimately, the fact that Tinariwen will not be complete tonight is apt – in their dispersed and fragmented form, they’re an accurate reflection right now of the situation in their homeland.

Tinariwen, Wellington Town Hall, 8pm tonight. Doors open, 7.30pm.


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