Timbuktu has been a crossroads for trade and civilizations since its establishment in the twelfth century. The Saharan town has been claimed consecutively by the wealthy Mali Empire (which lasted from the 13th to the 17th century), the Islamic Empire of Songhai (that spread throughout West Africa), various Tuareg tribes, the Saadi dynasty of Morocco, the French, and finally the current Republic of Mali. As a result of these constant political upheavals, Timbuktu is home to a rich and diverse mixture of cultures. This cultural mixture was recently under threat from the conflict that took place following the Tuareg rebellion of January 2012. Since then, the Tuareg rebel group MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), radical Islamists (both homegrown and from abroad), the region’s former colonial rulers (the French), and the Mali Republic itself have fought in a violent struggle that, though now resolved, has left many residents of the region as refugees.
The most recent Tuareg rebellion was only the latest in a series dating back to the creation of the Malian state in 1960. The state itself is a creature of the carelessness of transition from the colonial era. The Saharan region of Mali (called Azawad by Tuareg) has a unique history and culture, separate from that of the more prosperous southern region. Azawad has been persistently impoverished and war-torn, and many of its residents have spent significant periods in refugee camps. Though Azawadians have suffered from economic and political oppression, their music continues to flourish. Whether as a rallying cry for rebellion or simply a part of daily routine and relaxation, music has always played an essential role in Timbuktu. So one of the most shocking and horrible results of the Islamist takeover of Timbuktu was the ban placed on music. Mohamed Issa ag Oumar of the group Imharhan told the New York Times, “The occupiers made all kinds of threats, that they would chop off your hand so you couldn’t play, or cut out your tongue so you couldn’t sing…so if my guitar couldn’t stay, I decided I would split town, too.”
The annual Festival au Désert began in 2001. The liner notes for Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu state that the festival’s “mission has been to bring cross cultural exchange to economically develop this desert region. These recordings are a testament to the brave efforts of Festival organizers to use culture as a means of nonviolent reconciliation.” The Festival, which normally takes place each year in January, had to be postponed this year due to the conflict throughout the region. Because of the issues in the Azawad area, Tuareg groups Tartit and Imharhan, along with Mamadou Kelly, a Bambara musician, also born in Northern Mali, traveled to the United States to tour as a “caravan for peace,” bringing the Festival au Désert with them in exile.
Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu is a compilation of performances from last year’s Festival, which took place just three months before the imposition of Sharia law in northern Mali. As the Festival’s founding organizer Manny Ansar writes in the album’s liner notes, “Music has no borders, no prohibitions and… it is a common good of humanity in which one can delight beyond any other considerations… The healthy meeting of cultures is the oldest weapon and today the most appropriate in the face of the violence and intolerance that increasingly immerse our world.” Many musicians still live displaced from their native land in refugee camps in Mauritania and Burkina Faso. In spite of the fear of violent reprisals for musical performance, musicians in the region are determined to continue expressing their culture and traditions.
Many different musical styles are represented in this compilation. Ali Farka Toure, the legendary guitarist from Northern Mali, whose music blended traditional Malian music with the blues, was honored by the Ali Farka Toure Allstars featuring Mamadou Kelly, who perform “Adibar.” Igbayen, an all male traditional chorus, back up a griot singer, “who tells the legend and history of the Tuareg people and their life with the Sahara” (description from the liner notes) on a song known only as “Traditional Chant.” Exemplifying the cross-cultural pollination made possible through musical collaboration, the song “Mustt Mustt” is a collaboration between Kiran Alhuwalia, an Indian-Canadian singer of Qawwali, a style of Sufi devotional music popular in South Asia, and Tinariwen, the Tuareg group that invented the genre of “desert blues” and spawned thousands of devotees and imitators both in their own region and throughout the world. The compilation is dedicated to the memory of Koudede, a musician from Niger, who died ten months after performing at the Festival. Other highlights include “Super Onze” by Douma Maiga, “a master of the traditional Takamba style” (again thank you liner notes!), which is popular in the Azawad city of Gao. Maiga plays the ngoni, an instrument that dates back to at least the fourteenth century, and evolved into the banjo when slaves brought it from West Africa to North America. This connection has been acknowledged by one of the most well-known American banjo players, Bela Fleck. On “Les femmes sont belles,” Habib Koite asks the audience “Est-ce que ça va?” (“How’s it going?”) before performing a laid back song that sounds at once traditional and current. In spite of the violence that soon followed, his performance is a warm breath of optimism and a reminder that there is a great cultural tradition in northern Mali that will survive the violence of fanatics.