Friday, April 13, 2012

A Response for the Sake of Clarity on Mali & Tinariwen

Last week Sam Backer and I wrote a blog post on our concern about the Tuareg rebellion taking place in northern Mali and the band Tinariwen. The response to the post were both positive and negative. We were glad to see a discussion taking place, even for those who didn’t agree with us. However, we were troubled that some respected colleagues were coming to conclusions that were not what we were trying to convey. We realize now that our post was a bit convoluted and lacked clearly marked reference points to support our concerns. Thus, we felt the need to respond, to make a few points clear.

First, in no way was the post judging or attacking Tinariwen. We recognize the complexity of the Malian situation are not passing judgment on the band’s politics or its longstanding commitment to the struggle for Tuareg rights and recognition.

Second, in no way were we expecting western music media to give in-depth, detailed analysis and history behind the longstanding tension between the Tuareg and the Malian government.

To be specific, last week we were receiving news about Tinariwen and their forthcoming tour with Red Hot Chili Peppers (Here’s the press release we received). Then we saw the news of this press-release being published on various websites (example 1 and example 2). Nowhere was there any mention of the situation in Mali or that two of the main members of Tinariwen were stuck in refugee camps. Or that they had spoken out on the situation in Mali (see here). We found that rather strange. In a way, it would be like reporting on a Rastafarian reggae artist and not mentioning his or her beliefs. Or talking about a Sierra Leonean artist, like Janka Nabay, and not mentioning that he had to flee Sierra Leone because of the civil war there. What made the Tinariwen situation especially acute, though, was that everything this band sings about and the way they have been represented to us now had real-time significance, as this excellent New Yorker article points out. Thus, it seemed odd that none of this was being acknowledged by many music outlets, especially for a band that had once been described as, “Friends in the wilderness, who turned from comrades in arms in a bloody desert rebellion into dedicated artists, and finally into global messengers for the people of the Sahara” (read full-press sheet here).

To a certain extent, we understand why this is. It is the job of publicists and sometimes journalists or bloggers to take complex history and create a digestible narrative that is both understandable and intriguing to audiences.  That’s a tough job and we respect that. Arguably also, the situation had just taken place.  And we do understand the instinct to remain hands-off, as OkayAfrica explained to us here.

However, we felt that to not recognize the situation at all was unfortunate and could hold negative consequences.  It may not be the job of music media outlets to inform their readers about the detailed history of Mali.  However, here at Afropop, we have always tried to push the envelope in that regard, receiving global music not just as exotic sound, but as a window into the realities of the world. This is especially important when a situation is so timely and pertinent to the band’s identity and how they’ve been presented to us stateside.  To ignore the news context entirely at best misses an opportunity, and at worst perpetuates ignorance. By at least mentioning it, you can act as a starting point for a reader’s own exploration into the nitty-gritty details. That was really all we meant to say.

We regret any misunderstandings. We look forward to continuing the conversation about events in Mali.  We encourage you to read Executive Producer Sean Barlow’s reflections on the multi-ethnic (not only Tuareg) culture of the Malian north (here).  Also, find out ways you can help out with the severe humanitarian crisis that these events, and the displacement of as many as 200,000 refugees, have created in Mali (here).

- Saxon Baird
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