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Malian Maelstrom

The fraught relationship between exile and artistry in the Western Sahara


The tempestuous, upbeat “Soubour” put forth by Malian electric desert rock quartet “Songhoy Blues” signals immediately to music borne in the spirit of defiance toward extrinsic forces snuffing culture dear to the hearts of its custodians.The urgency, drive and sheer grit of this breakthrough track are emblematic of a particularly hardened resistance that has had to be carried by artists to prevail over a history punctuated by conflict, and an encroaching oppressive and regressive outlook on music and its associated culture as armed extremists swept northern Mali in 2012 - the result of a decades-long plight for Tuareg independence in the North that culminated in their coalition with militant Islamic factions, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who subsequently hijacked the revolt.

Indeed, the banning and violent punishment that the armed insurgents dealt to anyone found making or playing music under Sharia law was a dire sentence to a people hailed as birthing desert blues and whose distinctive sounds span generations of influential artists, capturing the essence of life and culture on the banks of the Niger. Driven into exile and accused of perpetrating “the music of Satan” in the North, the four young musicians that would eventually form Songhoy Blues, along with many of their contemporaries, traversed the conflict-hardened landscape and continued delivering their signature sounds and hopeful messages in the refuge of the capital, Bamako.

The driven desert rock of Songhoy Blues and the like is part of a well-established pedigree of iron-willed artists determined to keep music alive in the face of the militance that frequently beleaguers Mali’s tapestry of musical talent. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib witnessed his rebel father’s execution at only four years old during The First Tuareg Rebellion in 1963, spurring a nearly three-decade long trajectory of exile for the young Tuareg in neighbouring Libya and Algeria, where he would form the collective known as Tinariwen. From humble homemade acoustic guitar beginnings, the young group stunned as they adapted the traditional Tuareg sound to the hallmark instruments of the West, establishing themselves as forward Tuareg mouthpieces and gaining a Saharan following engaged in the avid trading of homemade Tinariwen cassette recordings. As Ag Alhabib returned to Mali in 1989 as part of the now well-recognised Tinariwen ensemble, yet another Tuareg uprising ensued during the following year and some of the band’s own members found themselves fighting for the rebel cause. Much like the fate of Songhoy Blues would play out more than a decade hence, it was in the melting pot refuge of Bamako where Tinariwen awed the French producers that would eventually catapult them to renown in the West during the early 2000s.

Swept up in the very same 1990 revival of the Tuareg resistance that found members of Tinariwen among its ranks, was a young Omar Moctar, ten years old at the time and forced from his native Niger into exile in Algeria. It was during this time that he taught himself how to play the guitar, eventually becoming the protégé and bandmate of a renowned Tuareg musician. Here, the young guitarist garnered the nickname “Bombino”, a moniker that emblazoned his multiple records that would skyrocket him to the top of World Music charts and into the most central folds of the Western electric blues and desert rock consciousness. The rambling, powerful, blues-sodden drive of 2013’s “Nomad”, produced with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, presents yet another instance of the seamless marriage of traditional Sahara sounds with contemporary electric blues and desert rock - a potent combination whose unique formulation of bluesy accessibility, ancient desert roots and flavour of rebellion has time and again garnered mass appeal on the international stage.

It is owed in large part to the wake of Tinariwen’s conquest of the West that the unmistakable desert groove of the Western Sahara has found a foothold on the international electric blues/psych scene as vibrant young artists meld generations-old desert stylings with modern genre and instrumentation hallmarks, riffing megalithic distorted phrases reminiscent of Hendrix, Hooker and Zeppelin and picking up production collaboration from the likes of modern rock darlings like Nick Zinner and Dan Auerbach.It is in this spirit of adaptation, collaboration and innovation that the determined grit of Mali’s prolific artists unites not only the ancient and the contemporary, but unites the Western Sahara’s rich cultures and legacies with one another to form a blustering, anthemic voice against conflicts and forces that would rather have them silenced.





Andy Morgan frequents the Guardian with pieces on cultural and political emergences and history in West Africa, as well as penning chronicles of the Malian musical diaspora on his own blog: lovingly collects and curates all manner of international music, and here feature a list of essential Tuareg listening:

They Will Have to Kill Us First is Johanna Schwartz’ poignant documentary on the events leading up to and following the 2012 insurgency in northern Mali, and the consequences for the region’s musicians:


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