Music Between Cultures

    About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    World Music’s New Mecca
    The Discovery of the Music of the Southern Sahara

    The music of the Tuareg, the nomads of the southern Sahara, is an ancient phenomenon, but it is experiencing a new and fascinating development under the auspices of globalisation.

    La Fiamme de la Paix

    As we left Timbuktu that morning, heading north-west into the desert, we passed a huge cement column on the outskirts of the city where the desert begins. Its arms stretched steeply to the sky, and in the pedestal rusty, burned-out guns had been fixed in the cement. The monument known as La Fiamme de la Paix was erected in memory of the flame ignited here in March 1996 when the Tuareg signed a tenuous peace agreement with the government of Mali and burned their weapons in a ceremony before the eyes of President Alpha Oumar Konaré, his colleague Jerry Rawlings from Ghana and all the tribal leaders. ‘The Malian army didn’t throw its guns into the fire then,’ muttered the Tuareg who took us to the Festival au Désert in the oasis of Essakane. The peace treaty had left a bitter aftertaste.

    When most of their cattle died during the droughts of the Seventies and Eighties, the Tuareg were suddenly confronted with the modern world. The way of life which had stood them in good stead over the course of many centuries collapsed. Nomads who had tended their flocks for many generations were forced for the first time to work for wages. Together with the camels and goats, the foundation for the life of these nomads romanticised in tourist brochures as the ‘blue knights of the desert’ vanished. They thought of themselves neither as ‘blue knights’ nor as Tuareg – the word is an invective which means ‘damned by God’. According to estimates, there are roughly a million of them dispersed over a huge area five times as large as Germany, stretching across Morocco, Mauretania, Algeria, Libya, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. These extremely heterogeneous groups are bound only by their common language, Tamasheq, and they therefore call themselves Kel Tamasheq, ‘speakers of Tamasheq’, or Imazighen, ‘free people’.

    The first rebellions of the Kel Tamasheq occurred already shortly after the multiethnic country became independent in 1960. Moussa Traoré, who came to power in 1968, was overthrown in 1991 in a military coup triggered by conflicts with the Tuareg. International financial aid which was intended to alleviate their need ended up in the hands of corrupt politicians, so the Tuareg had begun to attack military and police stations in north-western Mali in order to detach themselves from a country which strove to force them to give up their nomadic way of life. Moussa Traoré reacted sharply, and there was a wave of executions. Resistance was generated when fifty leading notables in Léré were court-marshalled and shot, and the army destroyed shops in the bazaar in Timbuktu. The opposition parties, operating underground, demanded democracy. After violent incidents which cost at least two thousand Tuareg their lives, Moussa Traoré was disempowered, brought to court and, together with some of his ministers and the chief of staff, sentenced to death. In 1992 parliamentary elections were held and since then Mali has known a fragile democracy, still headed by ATT, Amadou Toumani Traoré, the general who had deposed the previous head of state.

    Poètes guerriers

    Tens of thousands of Tuareg, most of them young men, crossed borders they had never recognised. They were called ishumaren,from the French ‘chômeur’: the unemployed. Far from their families, the ishumaren passed time in the camps singing traditional songs, which often told about the legendary warriors of the past, like Kaocen, Firhoun and Chokbo, who once conquered the French troops led by Colonel Bonnier at Takumbawt. Usually, the conflicts had to do with the control of water resources and wells; the Tuareg were pushed further and further south by the progressive desertification of the Sahel zone, where they came up against the herds of the Peul or other groups who defended their traditional water rights. The Tuareg were Islamicised by the Arab Beni Hillal, but never subjugated. They had no need of the sharia – originally meaning a path through the desert - because the stars showed them the way. They were of divine origin, so they said, tracing their ancestors to a djinn who had an affair with a human woman. The Arabs with whom they had repeatedly fought wars over the course of centuries mistrusted them and accused them of having killed the Prophet’s camel.

    The Tuareg had always expressed their passion for war and water in visionary verses and legends of great poetic vitality. Charles de Foucauld – a Frenchman whose fate is so noteworthy that I would like to outline it here - was so fascinated by their poetry that he translated it. Scion of one of the wealthiest families in France, he was, after the early death of his very pious parents, sent to a Jesuit school but was relegated for laziness and unsocial behaviour. Within a few years, he spent the 840,000 gold francs he inherited from his grandfather on prostitutes and lavish banquets. At the military school Saint-Cyr he received forty-five reprimands for insubordination and slackness. In 1879, the Hussar regiment which he finally joined was transferred to Algeria. With him Foucauld took his beloved Mimi, whom he had already smuggled into the barracks in France. After being dismissed from the army for the debauched life he led, he took off on an expedition through North Africa.

    Since Christians were not allowed in Morocco, Foucauld, together with the Rabbi Mardochi Abi Serur, who had a similarly chequered past, entered the country disguised as a Russian rabbi, Joseph Aleman. Equipped only with a sextant and a compass he mapped the Atlas Mountains, which until then had been a blank spot on European maps. After returning to Paris, he wrote down his experiences in two volumes entitled Reconnaissance du Maroc,and published the two thousand-page Dictionnaire Tuareg-francais,as well as two anthologies of Tuareg poetry covering another eight hundred pages. The Geological Society awarded him a gold medal.

    The sight of deeply religious Muslims in Morocco revived Foucauld’s faith in God, which he had lost at the age of fifteen. He joined the Trappist order. His family retracted the incapacitation order which they had legally enforced in 1892, but Foucauld dedicated himself to the religious life with the same fervour with which he had previously sinned. After a brief stay in Syrian and Algerian monasteries of his order, he left, because life in the monastery was not strict enough for him. Letters in which he beseeched the Vatican to allow him to found a monks’ order without a monastery remained unanswered. After living for some time in extremely poor conditions as a handyman in the monastery of the Poor Clares in Nazareth, he set himself up in a hermitage overlooking the Ahaggar mountains, some seventy kilometres from Tamanrasset, at an altitude of 2,700 metres. The Tuareg leader Moussa Ag Amestan was one of his closest friends; French soldiers made pilgrimages to him, as did the Tuareg whose disputes he tried to help resolve. On 1st December 1916 his retreat was occupied by rebel Senussi, who suspected that he had passed on information to the French army. When a group of soldiers appeared they mistakenly took them for méharistan, Arab soldiers serving the French, and Foucauld was shot in the ensuing scuffle. On 26th April 1929 his corpse, which had been thrown into a ditch next to his hut, was buried in the oasis of El Golea in a tomb resembling an Islamic shrine.

    Seventeen years after his death, a community was established in Algeria based on his ideas. In 1936 the Frenchwoman Magdaleine Hutin founded the order of the Little Sisters of Jesus on his model in the Sahara. On 13th November 2005, the man who had relinquished all comfort of monasteries and spent his life as a ‘living host’ among men he aimed to convince of his faith not by preaching but through his exemplary life was beatified by Pope Benedict. Apart from a small child and a blind old woman he converted no one in the Sahara, as he testified himself, but the admiration he felt for the Tuareg lives on.

    It was not only their physical thirst that the Tuareg proclaimed in their poetry. They also spoke, in elegant metaphors, of the thirst of the spirit in the infinity of the desert. Asouf - loneliness, melancholy - is the code word. The ishumaren introduced a new topic in the ancient poetic codex. The desert now threatened to spread inside and to undermine people from within. ‘I am the son of the maternal earth,’ wrote Issa Rhossey, a Tuareg poet from the Air, in his poem ‘Pas de Nom’: ‘I am the child of eternal pain. I am not the lord of the desert, but the slave of the naked horizon.’

    The Rolling Stones of the Sahara

    Ibrahim Ag Alhabib was born in 1960 in an oasis in northern Mali. His father, who supported his family as a cattle raiser and bricklayer, was dragged from his house in Tessalit by soldiers during the first Tuareg rebellion in 1963 and shot in the barracks of Kidal because he had provided the rebels with supplies. The soldiers then herded the family’s camels, sheep and goats together in the village of Aguelhoc and slaughtered them. Only one cow survived. Together with his grandmother, Ibrahim, who was just three years old at the time and only learned much later what had really happened, fled to the Adrar des Iforas region in north-eastern Mali and from there to Algeria. The cow died of thirst on the way.

    Ibrahim was one of tens of thousands of young Tuareg who were catapulted from the stillness of the oases to the din of the cities. He drifted through Algeria and Libya, earning his living by doing odd jobs. For a while he did a joiner’s apprenticeship in Oran, and ended up in prison several times – the academy of the unemployed who here either learned to survive or died. In 1979 in the oasis of Tamanrasset in southern Algeria, which was a magnet for many young Tuaregs, Ibrahim met two Malians who, like him, came from Adrar des Iforas: Hassan Touhami and Inteyeden Ag Ableline. Meetings like this were called ‘l’amitié autour d'une cigarette’ or ‘cigarette friendships.’

    Ever since his childhood, Ibrahim had built instruments from jerry cans, sticks and bicycle cables, on which he strummed traditional Tuareg tunes. Sometimes he added his own lyrics or imitated the blues style which had been popularised in northern Mali by Ali Farka Touré and Boubacar Traoré. The sound of the archaic skin-covered plucked instruments, called ngoni by the Songhai and teherdent by the Tuareg, was in his blood. His vagabond life acquainted him with other musical styles. In Oran he heard Algerian rai and the radical new urban chaabi, played by groups like Nass El Ghiwanin North Africa; pop stars like Boney M, and also Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker, in whose imploring recitations he saw the reflection of his own hopelessness and the lament of the total collapse of his world. In Tamanrasset he saw an acoustic guitar for the first time and persuaded the owner to bequeath it to him.

    The ishumaren were not familiar with the concept of a band – whoever sat down around one of their campfires joined in whatever the others were singing. The women accompanied the songs by beating drums and emitting the sharp quavering trills called ululations by music ethnologists. The first group Ibrahim formed with Hassan and Inteyeden was called ‘Taghreft Tinariwen’. The word taghreft means a gang; tinariwen is simply the plural of ténéré, which means desert or the ‘empty place.’ They played at weddings, at parties, at campsites, and finally were even invited to a festival in Algiers. A combo by the name of Sawt El Hoggar based in Tamanrasset lent them equipment and for the first time Ibrahim curled his fingers around the neck of an electric guitar.

    The electric guitar was, after all, the only positive effect of globalisation, remarked the son of the great Algerian poet Kateb Yassin, who was given the name Amazigh by his father. With his band, Gnawa Diffusion, he made his Tamasheqname famous.Musically, the band, which vacillated between the French exile in which Amazigh Kateb grew up and Algeria, continued to develop. In daring texts and driving rhythms they fusioned gnawa, the trance music of black slaves which Arab traders had brought to Morocco in jute bags from Guinea and other countries south of the Sahara, with rock and chaabi.Bush est mort’ is Amazigh’s current congratulation on the departure of the President, who can be seen in a YouTube clip with a drawn sword, dancing arm in arm with the Saudi king and pouring Angela Merkel a glass of water.

    When Tinariwen told the story of their formation to a Western journalist for the first time at the Festival au désert near Kidal , there were hefty debates. The group found it difficult to reconcile their memories. By now Tinariwen was made up not only of Ibrahim, Hassan Touhami and Inteyeden Ag Ableline but also Kheddou Ag Hossad, Mohammad - who was called ‘le japonais’ because of his resemblance to a samurai from a Kurosawa film - Abdallah ‘Catastrophe’, the drummer and singer Mina and her friend Wounou, and some other crew members. Hassan introduced himself as the ‘Lion of the Desert’. Ibrahim’s nickname was ‘Abaraybone’, the journalist learned, meaning ‘ragamuffin kid’ or ‘the scruffy tearaway who's always playing in the dirt’. One of the scenes of their stories was the Libyan camp to which Gaddafi had invited young Tuaregs in order to train them for his revolutionary plans in Africa. They believed that he would support them in their struggle for an autonomous Tuareg state in the Sahara, but when it turned out that behind their backs he had negotiated their repatriation with the government of Niger they returned to the desert.

    Iyad Ag Ghali, the head of MPA, the Mouvement Populaire de l’Awazad, which fought for the emancipation of the northern parts of Mali, recognised in the songs of Tinariwen, which were about hope, pain and yearning for their own homeland, a tool to reach the Kel Tamashek, who had neither a radio station nor newspapers. He provided a practice room and financed the guitars. The cassettes they recorded were soon spinning in ghetto blasters all around the Sahara.

    Some members of Tinariwen belonged to the group which, on 30th June 1990, attacked the military post in Menaka near the border with Niger, thus triggering the second Tuareg rebellion. That they fought with a Kalashnikov in one hand and an electric guitar in the other soon became a legend. The press texts for The Radio Tisdas Sessions, their first CD, which they made after the peace treaty in their hometown of Kidal, took off on this martial legend – however, for Tinariwen the focus was not on the rebellion which, for them, was associated with traumatic memories, but the reflection on their life which vacillated between an archaic inheritance and desolate modernity.

    Traditional nomad gatherings where people danced and sang, called temakannit, had taken place in the Sahara since time immemorial, but the idea of opening up these gatherings for non-Tuaregs and inviting musicians from the remarkably different southern part of the country was new. The inspiration that this could develop into a veritable world music festival with an international audience originated with the Lo’Jo, a group of musicians and theatre people living a communal life in Angers in the idyllic Loire Valley – musical globetrotters who first met Tinariwen in 1999 in Bamako, the capital of Mali. They invited them to France for a brief tour and then joined with the Tuareg organisation EFES whose purpose was to call attention to the perilous situation of their people. 

    The first Festival au désert was held in 2001 in the region of Kidal. The President of Mali appeared at the head of a convoy of twenty-four snow-white Land Rovers to give the festival his blessing. At most there were no more than thirty Westerners present, but they were fascinated by the wild men with turbans and electric guitars who climbed the sand dunes which served as an improvised podium. But since even the military avoided the foothills of the nearby Adrar des Iforas mountains, which offered protection to rebels who were still armed, the next event was transferred to the white dunes of Essakane because it was easier to attract Western world music tourists there. Tinariwen were the stars here, too.  The ‘Rolling Stones of the Sahara’ soon became known in musicians’ circles. In 2003 Robert Plant, lead vocalist of the legendary rock group Led Zeppelin, joined Tinariwen on the stage. ‘It’s like listening to a drop falling down into a deep well,’ is how he described the feeling their music aroused in him. The CD with the recording from the Festival au désert made the world music charts and catapulted Tinariwento international fame. Ammassakoul, their next album, was recorded in Studio Bogolan in Bamako. Aman Iman – ‘Water of Life’ – was the third album. Since then, Tinariwen have sold eighty thousand CDs. By now the group has toured most major cities in Europe and the U.S. Keddhou has gone to Algeria; Enteyeden has died of lung cancer; the eccentric poet ‘Japonais’ is going his own way. Ibrahim, still thin as a rail and with wild Afro locks, has found new comrades-in-arms. Tinariwen is not a band but a clan, a family. The price they had to pay for their international commercialisation can be seen on the internet where their last CD was frowned upon: ‘The romantic rockers from the desert are forever enchanting, even if they sound very produced this time.’ But Carlos Santana brought them to the Jazz Festival in Montreux in 2007 and assured them that they were sitting at the source from which Muddy Waters, Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy had drunk.

    Desert Blues

    In January 2004 ‘the world’s most remote festival’ – as the headline went – attracted some hundreds of Western visitors. We hurried to get the seventy kilometres to Essakane behind us as fast as possible in order to be there in time for the opening. This turned out to be unnecessary; only toward evening did the audience gradually gather before the stage set up on a sand dune, and then it took hours until – hurrying ‘on bare soles over the hot desert sand,’ as the conferencier affirmed – the Malian Minister of Culture turned up, the film director Cheikh Oumar Sissoko, to open the festival. The wind had shifted the dunes while the stage was being set up, so the cordoned-off VIP section in front of the stage in which space had to be made for dignitaries kept shrinking, until the rest of the audience was forced to find a place on the next sand dune one hundred metres away and could only watch the proceedings on the stage over the head of the BBC camera crew. The time until the arrival of the Minister was bridged with a sketch warning about AIDS, and there was enough time to ask Miss Mali in a strapless red evening dress to come on stage.

    The day had been hot; the January night was cold. The trip here had been exhausting, naturally there were no showers, water was in short supply, and the portable toilets provided by an international aid organisation were unusable after a few hours. Visitors stumbled through the sand in search of a protected spot behind a dune to relieve themselves. The biggest problem was the dust, so fine that it penetrated the tiniest crack – a small insight into the hardship of nomadic life. It turned out that the tagoulmoust, the veil the Tuareq wear over the faces, was not meant for decoration but was indispensable for the survival of anyone travelling in the desert.

    Tamnana, a Tuareg group from Faguibine near Timbuktu, opened the festival. Haira Arby, the ‘dove of the North’, also from Timbuktu, and accompanied by the regional orchestra on electric guitars, drums and gourds, sang in Tamashek, Arabic and Peul. As a status symbol, she had brought her red high heels which were extremely unsuited for walking in the desert sand. No problem – a little black page carried them on the sandy path to the stage, as if the singer were a queen from the tales of the Arabian Nights. ‘Un grand coucou!’ begged the two conferenciers in fluttering boubous, ‘once again a big hand!’ 

    Blackfire, a Navajo family ensemble from Arizona, had spared no effort to visit their brothers in the desert; foreign groups travelled to the festival at their own expense. Grandfather Benally performed a traditional dance. ‘Merci for letting us discover the deep spirituality of Arizona!’ the moderator afterward called to the paterfamilias. Fraternisation between members of the young generation of Navajos and Tuaregs occurred on the following day when the family ensemble metamorphosed into a punk band. Sister Jeleda on the bass, brother Klee as lead singer and brother Clayson on drums struck up Woody Guthrie’s hymn ‘Mean Things Happenin’ In This World’ – they were the only band at the festival that had the Malian dignitaries in the front rows being overwhelmed by dancing young people.

    The Tuareg had brought their own exotic musicians – the Wodaabe, a group of carefully costumed, imaginatively made-up, fine-boned men in dainty skirts who had come from neighbouring Niger. They clapped their hands, pattered in place with their feet, and waved their arms with strange fluttering movements as if, like birds, they were about to take flight. The ostrich feathers on their heads trembled in the desert wind, but hardly any of the ‘white noses’ in the audience realised that they had not been invited to the Festival au désert for folkloric reasons alone. While the Tuareg number around one million, the Wodaabe in neighbouring Niger constitute a tiny minority of just 100,000 people, which is only two percent of the population. In contrast to the belligerent Tuareg, they are extremely peace-loving, live on milk and vegetables, and elude both military service and Islamicisation. Their lives focus on their zebu cattle. To slaughter or sell them is anathema to them, but in the droughts of recent years they too had found themselves in dire straits. They were forced further and further into the Sahara by sedentary Haussa farmers, where they encountered the Tuareg nomads with their camels who demanded a fee for using their wells. The situation worsened when they found themselves trapped between the fronts of the Tuareg and the soldiers of the governments of Mali and Niger who were fighting across the borders. A peace agreement was signed in Niger in 1995, but it has yet to be implemented. Niger, according to the Society for Threatened Peoples, is riddled with corruption and ruled by the military. France and the U.S. pay for the uranium and the oil in the northern part of the country, but the nomads living there are at the mercy of marauding soldiers and bandits who steal their cattle and rape their women nearly every day. They are also disadvantaged by aid organisations in the Sahel zone: food to bridge the dry period is distributed exclusively to sedentary farmers. The organisations insist that the Wodaabe reduce their herds of cattle and also become sedentary. Like the American Indians, the Wodaabe are demanding that the UN recognise their rights as an indigenous people. 

    It looked almost as if the appearance of these majestically dressed male beauties was embarrassing for the Tuareg, who wrapped themselves in metres of cloth; they relegated them to a side stage on which the amplifying equipment was barely working. The audience engaged in lively conversation while preparations for the appearance of the next electric Tuareg guitar band were going on on the main stage. The Wodaabe refused to be deterred: they too wanted to attract the tourists’ attention. It was worth it. In Essakane they met some Tuareg musicians who joined them on Desert Crossroads – the name of the CD they recorded in 2005. These days Etran Finatawa, the ‘Stars of Tradition’, are shining all over Europe as well.

    Baba Djiréwas the next Tuareg group on stage. The hymns of local stars to the oasis of Essakane met with wild applause. The Tuareg made up most of the bands. Nabi, ‘Prophet,’ came from Timbuktu; Super Khoumaissa danced the takamba, which adopts the ever-present rhythm of the camels in Essakane. When they appeared, the stage was immersed in darkness after the first power failure. With the help of flashlights, cables were sought in the desert sand until the spotlights radiated as brightly as the faces of the fans.

    Actually, there were two festivals held in parallel in the oasis of Essakane. The first was dominated by the Tuareg, who seized the opportunity to acquaint their guests with their culture; the second, far smaller, was dedicated to the pan-Malian spirit of reconciliation of the north and south of the country, and world music enthusiasts. Whoever had hoped to hear the sounds of the kora played by the griots of Mali was disappointed. Salif Keita had been announced but was nowhere to be seen; however, the guitarist and singer Amadou Bagayoko, who played with him in the Seventies in the legendary Ambassadeurs du Motel, knew the rules of international show business just as well. He was supported by Manu Chao and Cheikh Tidiane Seck, who was one of the veterans of the Super Rail Band, the second legendary band from the capital of Bamako. Together they got the oasis of Essakene dancing until well after midnight. The jazz project Don Cherry’s Gift, developed by the French Mopti Quartet together with the Gangbe Brassband from Benin, was another enjoyable musical experience which the visitors in January 2004 had the pleasure of hearing.

    When Ali Farka Touré appeared, not only the light was missing but the sound as well. The audience waited patiently under the twinkling stars until it turned out that someone had simply forgotten to fill the cooler for the generator with water. At the press conference the next morning, Ali Farka repeated the litany he had recited to many Western journalists: he owed his music primarily to the traditions of the Songhai and the Tuareg, not to North American blues. Oumou Sangaré, the festival’s second superstar, who dressed up the Wassoulou music of the hunters of the south in a contemporary sound and popularised it with texts dealing with women’s emancipation, appeared on the last evening, but restricted herself to a single song in playback because her orchestra had remained at home. All the same, Ali Farka Touré could not resist dancing with her on the stage on the dunes.

    A festive mood arose when Amadou & Mariam came on stage – the blind couple, who became acquainted at the school for the blind in Bamako and since then had followed in the steps of James Brown, had many enthusiastic fans in Mali. In 2004 they were still not well known abroad, but three years later Herbert Grönemeyer brought them to Berlin to open the World Football Championship.

    Under the pavilion roof far from the music stage, discussions were held about eco-tourism and the situation of the Tuareg – one of the few opportunities to get to know them as something other than musicians or souvenir sellers. The intellectual elite of the Tuareg seemed to be assembled here, with high-ranking sociologists, economists and pedagogues who stressed in accent-free French that Mali needed a plan to promote literacy. The government was trying to make them sedentary in order to send their children to school, they said, but it was inconceivable for them to give up their nomadic way of life – it would mean the end of their identity.

    In the oasis of Essakane we first had to shake the scorpions out of our sleeping bags before we crept into them. In the morning the wind drove the sand through the tents that made up the camp. Shortly before starting out, one of the scorpions stung Doug. We brought him to the first-aid tent, but the Malian nurse only laughed. A scorpion sting? That happened every day here. She gave him an injection to calm him down. 

    The Mecca of world music

    Everyone has been here. The American guitarist Ry Cooder, to visit his friend Ali Farka Touré, with whom he had won a Grammy Award for Talking Timbuktu. Nick Gold, who in a makeshift studio recorded his album Niafunké which put the name of this sleepy little town - which differed little from other neighbouring towns on the banks of the Niger – on the world music map. Others followed them: journalists, musicians, world music tourists who wanted to get a scent of the place where it all had happened.

    Martin Scorsese came here too, looking for traces of blues. In his documentary film Feel Like Going Home Ali Farka Touré effusively welcomes his black colleague Craig Harris, who had flown in from California. ‘Thousands of people have come to Niafunké, but I have looked forward to your visit more than anyone else’s,’ he told him as they fought their way through the gunsmoke of the muzzle-loaders fired by the riflemen’s association of local hunters as a welcome. Later they sat together under a tree and exchanged songs. ‘You’re not an American!’ Ali Farka addressed his guest. ‘There are no black Americans; there are only Africans. You’re at home here. This is your country.’

    In international music magazines, Niafunké is called the ‘Mecca of Mali blues.’ But what does this label really mean? ‘You know the branches, but we in Mali have the roots and the trunk. I know myself what I’m playing, no one needs to tell me that,’ Ali Farka reprimanded white journalists. Indeed, there is a relationship between the sluggish beats played in the Mississippi Delta and along the banks of the Niger, but Ali Farka wanted to convey something else: no plaintive wails about slaving on cotton plantations, no moans about whiskey and women. Ali Farka and his pupil Afel Bocoum, who accompanied him in Essakane, give young people advice for life, and intone, in the steady pulse of the river, hymns to their country, their river and their town of Niafunké, which elected Ali Farka as mayor. Far from being an underdog, he was in fact a landowner who was proud of his land. Nor does Afel Bocoum correspond to the usual image of a blues singer. A slender man with fine features and gold-rimmed glasses and a white robe thrown over his shoulder, he talked about his concern for the future of the young people. He preferred playing under Mali’s open sky to cramped Western studios, he explained.

    Perhaps it was only politeness that made Ali Farka answer once more the question about the blues that was posed again at a press conference at the Festival of Essakane in 2004. The blues? What could that be? He thought it was a bad joke when he was asked if he had learned to play the guitar from John Lee Hooker. Of course, he had heard him for the first time in 1968 and was deeply impressed – not because he recognised him as his master, but because it seemed to him that the American blues singer was playing something which actually belonged to Africa, from the banks of the Niger where Touré had grown up.

    He came from the village of Kanau, just a few kilometres away. His name identifies him as the descendant of Mohamed Touré, the founder of the Askia Dynasty whose tomb in Gao in eastern Mali is still venerated to this day. For his parents, it was inconceivable that their son wanted to become a musician. That he was the only one out of ten sons who survived earned him the nickname ‘Farka’, meaning donkey – this way the spirits would not find him so fast, they hoped. ‘I may be a donkey, but no one can sit on my back,’ he parried in response. 

    Nevertheless, the spirits found him. Far below its shining surface, the Niger contains secrets that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Crocodiles, and the mysterious mantins, sea cows up to three and a half metres long, have become rare, but the hippos, Mali’s totem, can still be encountered in certain sections of the river. The depths of the river are populated not only by animals but by spirits as well. Tales of river spirits and huge capitaine fish are only whispered in Mali, because the spirits must not be disturbed. Even though the Niger usually flows stolidly, it is anything but safe. Sudden gusts of wind can upset a small fishing boat in no time; it is easy to lose one’s way in the undergrowth of bourgou grass which makes most of the riverbank almost indistinguishable. Hippos can attack a boat. In the depths, the easily-angered river god is lurking. Even if Islam, which rejects the old rites, has ruled the day for many centuries, at night still the spirits show up. Stories of death, trances and dreams are told on the banks of the Niger. When it gets dark, when the boundaries between the worlds become blurred and the dya, the human’s double, leaves its body in a dream, it encounters the spirits of the ancestors. Their names are only seldom mentioned because in this occult universe a name confers power.

    Ali Farka was mesmerised by the sounds he heard on the riverbank at ceremonies for the river spirits. At the age of twelve, he crafted his first njurkel, the one-stringed guitar the Songhai play. ‘My family were not griots, so I did not receive any instruction,’ he explained. ‘It was a gift. God does not give everyone the ability to play an instrument. Music is something spiritual – the power of the sound comes from the spirits.’ The Songhai accepted Islam back in the fifteenth century, but at least secretly they continued to believe in djinn who were thought to live under the surface of the water.

    At the age of thirteen, Ali Farka encountered them for the first time when playing the njurkel long after midnight – in the shape of three girls, who held him at bay for hours on the spot where he was standing. The next day, at the edge of a field, he met a black-and-white spotted snake which wrapped itself around his head. A little later, the attacks began which transported him to the world of the spirits. Along the Niger, people chosen by the spirits are called ‘children of the river’. They are viewed with a mixture of awe and reserve. Ali was sent to the magic mountain of Hombori to be cured. No one ever learned what happened to him there, but when he returned a year later he was an accomplished musician. His grandmother had been a priestess of the water spirits. Ali wanted to follow in her footsteps, but people prevented him from doing so. His link to the spirits was a side of his life that he was reluctant to discuss. ‘Because of Islam, we prefer not to concern ourselves too much with these things... the spirits can be good, but they can be bad too, so I just sing about them. But because this is part of our culture, we cannot simply ignore them.’ He would rather listen to the Niger. ‘When I listen to the rhythm of the river, I feel the waves are telling me something,’ says Ali Farka Touré.

    Excerpt from the book The Mali of My Dreams (Daastaan Books, New Delhi 2009).
    Peter Pannke
    is a freelance author, journalist and musician. He has published numerous books on African and Oriental music, including Troubadoure Allahs – Sufimusik im Industal [Allah’s Troubadours – Sufi Music in the Indus Valley].

    Translated by: Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2011

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