|Manny Ansar in New York|
Amid all this, Afropop received a lengthy, thoughtful review of Tinariwen’s 2011 CD release Tassili (Anti). Intagrist El Ansari, a Tuareg follower of the band, writes with nostalgic passion about Tinariwen’s origins in the 1980s, in refugee camps during a time of war. “We were young in those ‘Kel Tamasheq’ (Tuareg) refugee camps,” El Ansari writes, “built in Mauritania, Algeria and Burkina Faso during the clashes between the rebels and the Malian armed forces. Adolescents, we grew up being shaped by the spirit of this music, full of sentimentality, hope and nostalgia. The beauty of those song poems made us hopeful that we would one day return for the better to the desert homes of our childhood.”
Ironically, the very qualities that alienate this longtime fan, and presumably others, are central to making Tinariwen so accessible to Westerners. That’s too bad, because Tinariwen is doing a tremendous service to its people and region, offering a powerful counterweight to so many negative forces—from Al Qaeda copycats in the Sahara, to refugees of the fallen regime in Libya. Tinariwen is caught in an awkward in-between.
|Tinariwen at private NYC appearance|
Colbert moved on quickly, and soon came the performance, which featured Malone and Adebimpe singing and vibing along with the turbaned and robed Malians in a truly soulful performance. This was the payoff. One can assume that much of Colbert’s audience gets little exposure to Tuareg, or even African, music. So the sight of these austere, turbaned men—who have some vaguely defined connection with “Qaddafi’s military camps,” wielding guitars and performing rapturous, trancey, rock-like music with well known US pop music personalities, had to be---at the very least---a challenge to the imagination. The appearance may have clarified little, but it had to spark curiosity, and to my mind, it was a great moment for Tuareg awareness within American popular culture. Watch, and see for yourself:
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Tinariwen with Kyp Malone & Tunde Adebimpe|
Now, the Festival in the Desert must negotiate between these complicated extremes. In New York, Manny Ansar spoke about the tension between security and celebration at the festival. He had a good story to tell. Last year, a number of governments recommended against attending the January, 2011, event. Nevertheless, some 1000 foreign visitors made their way to Timbuktu, and the worst security breach was a stolen camera. The president of Mali attended. There were camel races, concerts, talks, and in all, the very hospitality and desert magic that has drawn people to this event for over a decade.
Looking to 2012, Ansar said, “Foreign Affairs officials of major governments have decided for the past few years to draw a line in Mali, and tell people they should not cross that line. The line moves, but now Mopti and Timbuktu are included. I’m not sure exactly what barometer they use to make this judgment, but from our point of view, it is completely out of touch. Because, honestly, we see no reason to red light Mali, any more than many other countries around the world where there are many, many more victims of terrorism than in Mali. Over the past few years there have been four or five victims of terrorism in the entire Sahara region. And as you know, there are countries in North Africa and the Middle East where there are 10 times as many attacks every year, by comparison with Mali. They don’t say, ‘Never go to Egypt.’
“For us, it is exaggerated. It is not more dangerous in Mali than elsewhere. Zero risk exists nowhere. But if it is necessary to stop this festival, if it is possible to stop tourism in Mopti and Timbuktu, that is too much. 70% of peoples’ income in those areas comes from tourism. You will create unemployment, banditry, and more problems. That is the reality.”
Ansar pointed out that if they can’t profit from tourism, young people will be forced to work for drug smugglers and terrorists. “This is the paradox of this history.” And this is why Tinariwen’s outreach to the world, and the Festival in the Desert are so important in the global struggle for cultural harmony, even if some measure of authenticity is sacrificed in the eyes of people like El Ansari, and some risk is assumed by visitors. In short, big things are on the line in the fate of this tiny festival. And while the November 25 kidnapping/murder makes Ansar’s argument a tougher sell, it does not diminish his larger point. This is a matter of economic and cultural survival, and of preserving a hard one peace in the the Timbuktu region.
|Banning Eyre and Manny Ansar|
“We are not able to ignore the risks which exist for all our invited westerners, be they festival attendees, artists, volunteers or members of the organization. Yesterday, the President of the Republic of Mali himself reaffirmed his strong intention that the event be held. The Festival Directors are working in collaboration with the government to put in place maximum security measures to assure the safe operation of the Festival.”
I personally find this stance admirable, and if I had a ticket to Timbuktu, I would not change my plans based on a single incident there. I hope others feel the same way, and I would dare to predict that those who do attend the festival and hear bands like Tinariwen asserting their cultural pride, and their proud connection to the larger world, will have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and return home safely.
Click here to visit the official, Festival in the Desert website.