Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Globalized Tuaregs, and the Plight of the Festival in the Desert

These are trying times for the Tuareg communities of the Sahara. We are barely one month from the 11th annual Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu. A tantalizing preliminary roster (including Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, Habib Koite, and of course the preeminent Tuareg band Tinariwen) has been posted. Tinariwen has recently toured in the US, including an appearance on The Colbert Report, further enhancing their mantle as champions of a globalized, “desert rock” sound. And, prior to a November 25 kidnapping incident in Timbuktu, Festival in the Desert director Manny Ansar was also making the rounds, talking up the festival and its pristine security record, and encouraging people to come and enjoy and support Tuareg culture in this amazing region.

Manny Ansar in New York
I spoke with Manny about all this in New York on November 17, at an event hosted by Essakane Film, which is currently producing an independent documentary film on the Festival in the Desert. The event was a celebration, with a private concert by Tinariwen, a short screening of footage from the film, and much excitement about the coming festival. Days later, came tragic news of an assault on a Timbuktu hotel, resulting in the death of one tourist and the abduction of three others. Exactly who did this and why remains unclear, but the event comes in the wake of Qaddafi’s overthrow and death in Libya, which has released a small flood of Africans, including Tuareg, into places like Mali, sometimes well armed—another unpredictable wild card in the mix.

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.”

El Ansari’s feels that, in its decade-long rise to global acclaim, Tinariwen has strayed from the spirit and purpose of those times. “Emotion that was in the past the strength of this music gives way to a much more technical approach,” he writes. “We put a lot of energy into organizing musical evenings in the camps dedicated especially to this music, mostly only with tape cassettes, but occasionally groups came and gave concerts. Today, we are nostalgic for the authenticity that this music had in its early stages.” Even on Tassili, recorded in part in the deserts of southern Algeria, El Ansari complains that electric guitar now “saturates” Tinariwen’s songs, and that “the spirit of spontaneous creation is dying,” replaced by something “more calculated, more fine tuned… less poetic and lyrical.” For El Ansari, the mere fact that the band feels a need to go back to roots amounts to a concession that it has strayed. And needless to say, the participation of members of TV on the Radio does not impress him.

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
Take the Colbert appearance. Three band members sat for an interview first, alongside Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, and a female Tuareg translator, dressed like the band in traditional attire. There were a few softball questions. The musicians laughed at Colbert’s bombastic humor. Then, out of the blue, Colbert said to the translator, “I understand these fellows were in Qaddafi’s military training camps to train as rebels in the Mali civil war. Is that true?” Something got lost in the subsequent translation, because the answer that came back was not about the musicians of Tinariwen in their early, rebel camp days, but rather, the more recent waves of Africans who have gone to seek their fortunes in Libya. They didn’t go there to be in Qaddafi’s army, but to find a better life, was the gist of the answer. Sure, some ended up in the army, but not because they wanted to fight for Qaddafi. That was the only work available to them.

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 ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Tinariwen with Kyp Malone & Tunde Adebimpe
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

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
On December 3, Manny Ansar and other Festival in the Desert officials held a press conference in Bamako to announce that the Festival will go ahead in January, 2012. Ansar said, in part, “Since its creation, the Festival in the Desert has represented the values of peace and reconciliation. It is a symbol of people, Malian, Sahelian, African and non-African, meeting in the desert where, in the face of the reality of this difficult environment, all men are equal. To not hold this festival, when the same area is threatened by violence and terrorism, is somehow to forget these values and to let fear gain a durable foothold.

“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.

Banning Eyre
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