Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Voices From a Desert War

Barely two months had passed since France turned back the jihadist push into Mali, so the three April-scheduled albums that arrived in March had obviously been recorded during or before the bad time: Malian ngoni king Basseke Kouyaté's breakout, Jama Ko; the first recording in a decade from northern Mali's Tuareg-dominated Festival in the Desert; and Niger guitarist Bombino's major-label debut, Nomad. All had politics, and two were explicitly anti-sharia. Given the continent's hallowed tradition of governmental malfeasance, its music has a way of obscuring political dilemmas in futile pan-Africanist entreaties, and in Mali calls for national unity are de rigueur, even though Mali's boundaries were invented by Europeans. Since sharia proscribes music itself, however, this was different.

Although I've followed African music for four decades now, that long meant sub-Saharan Africa: black Africa, jungle and savannah Africa, animist-Christian Yoruba and Zulu and Congo and then Muslim Wolof and--after the first Iraq war had drawn me to Islamic music, Mediterranean Africa's gratefully included--Wassoulou and Bambara Africa. It was hello Bamako, next stop Timbuktu--a world of black African and then brown African Islam, which can mean Sufi or animist or semi-observant but also sometimes conservative Islam, a world where "northerner" is how Bamako sophisticates refer to their unruly fellow citizens in the sand. Yet I was surprised to fall so hard for 2005's Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara--which, I told Blender readers, evoked "the intensely pleasurable illusion that before all the other musics you know, there was this." I am no kind of mystic and prefer my awe-inspiring vistas green. But Saharan music gets you like that.

Bigger than Europe with a population smaller than Slovakia's, the Sahara is divided among some of the world's poorest nations: Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, the ex-Spanish Western Sahara, and Mali itself, among others, including the poorest stretches of wealthier Libya and Algeria. With the highly questionable exception of Algeria, all are ruled by elites at least as corrupt as most other African nations' elites. Many ethnic groups once roamed and continue to populate this desert, with the most musically significant the Afro-Berber Sahrawi in the west and the somewhat lighter-skinned Afro-Berber ex-lords of the central Sahara, the Tuaregs.

Musically, Mali is the region's most significant nation by far, although the preponderance of its major artists are sub-Saharan -- Afropop feminist Oumou Sangaré's forested Wassoulou is further south than Senegal is. The big exception is the first world-renowned Saharan musician, the late Ali Farka Touré, a Songhai from Niafunke, about 350 miles north of Bamako and 90 miles southeast of Timbuktu. As with Tinariwen, the earliest of several Tuareg bands to achieve international visibility--their 2011 album is put out by alt-rock powerhouse Anti and features input from most of TV on the Radio--I respect and sometimes enjoy Touré but seldom warm to him. I know you have to be a hustler to get your music out of Niafunke, but he overdid the tendentious theory that blues was invented in Mali and, like Tinariwen, favored the kind of solemnity that impresses folkie primitivists more than it does cultural impurity fans like me.

My first Saharan breakthrough was 2003's Festival in the Desert CD, where only seven acts appear to be Tuareg--most arrestingly the female émigré troupe Tartit and the percussive chants of several local aggregations. Skillfully sequencing related idioms so unfamiliar they might otherwise "all sound the same," the wide-ranging Rough Guide selection is more representatively Saharan from bellydanceable Berber-Andalusian opener to poetic-devotional Berber-Algerian closer. Soon followed two Tuareg guitarists from Niger and a Sahrawi from Western Sahara, each with his own individual garage-Hendrix sound, Bombino's the most finished but not therefore the most inspired. With Bamako already boasting its own pervasive and seductive guitar tradition, suddenly Sahara's southern fringe was the new hotbed of an archetypal instrument fast losing cachet in its native land.

The Sahara remains sparsely documented even as we're warned that it could be the new frontier of Islamist expansionism, and Americans need to realize that its human uses go well beyond its store of oil, gas, and uranium and the geographical barrier it provides between the Middle East and black Africa. But reliable information is hard to come by, especially in English, which had little colonial presence there. Banning Eyre's shrewd yet warm and unpresumptuous 2000 In Griot Time, a nuanced tale of his apprenticeship with Bamako master guitarist Djelimady Tounkaré, never gets to Timbuktu. Michael Benanav's 2006 Men of Salt, which recounts an arduous five-week journey to and from the Saharan salt mines of Taoudenni, is memorable on the harshness of the sand and the brilliance of the camel but begins with Benanav's discovery that he won't meet any Tuaregs on his quest, because they're above such things and because their battle camels fared even worse in the 1973-74 drought than the pack camels he learns to love. And so far we have just one book-length source on the current conflict, by British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan, who knows everything there is to know about the Tuaregs, except that nobody's perfect.

I'm exaggerating, but not by enough. For instance, not once does Keenan's new The Dying Sahara hint at the Tuaregs' proud and extensive military history, much less the long involvement in slavery he acknowledges in his 1977 The Tuareg. Tuaregs were active slave traders in the 19th century and after, and like many other African worthies, especially Berbers, kept mostly sub-Saharan slaves well past slavery's independence-era illegalization, probably into the present--in relations Keenan reports are long on intermarriage and short on corporal punishment, which is nice, I suppose, but human chattel is human chattel even so. In part because Keenan's fieldwork was done in Algeria--where only 25,000 of the 1.2 million Tuaregs reside (almost all are in Niger and Mali)--he is nothing less than obsessed with the machinations of Algeria's internal security arm, the Département de Renseignement et de la Sécurité, or DRS. Keenan believes that with the full cognizance of France and the U.S. the DRS launches "false-flag terrorism" operations designed to justify the War on Terror, and regards AQIM-Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, often named as the cutting edge of Saharan jihad-as a DRS front. His inferences seem credible and to some extent convincing. But when a periodical as unbeholden to capitalism as Counterpunch fails to mention the DRS in two of the best-informed accounts of the Malian conflict I've located (Vijay Prashad's 2009 "What's Happening in Mali?," which calls AQIM "a small shop with a large sign," and Gary Leupp's 2013 "France Re-conquers Mali"), I have to assume he's not telling the whole story.

One reason these quandaries matter to me is that I'm nosy about politics--when I get interested in a place I want to understand how it works. But with the three Malian albums now burst upon us it's deeper than that, because all three respond to the current crisis, in which, let's see now: 1) MNLA, the Mouvement National de Libération de l'Azawad, launched yet another Tuareg war to carve a desert nation called Azawad out of Mali and its neighbors; 2) Mali's outgoing president, an elected military man unprepared militarily for this rebellion and no fiduciary paragon either, was preemptively overthrown by the usual cabal of junior officers; and 3) said junta was unable to stop AQIM and its motley allies, their ranks bolstered by a portion of the well-armed Tuaregs who had formerly sought their fortunes in Gadaffi's militia as they morphed from brutal gangs of smugglers and kidnappers flying a Muslim flag into actual jihadists imposing unspeakably brutal sharia law all the way to Timbuktu itself: stoning adulterers, severing hands, forcing the veil on women who'd never worn one, and, as mentioned, banning music.

None of these records addresses Islamism's Malian advance directly. In fact, only Bombino's was recorded (in the Nashville studio of producer Dan Auerbach) after its full extent became clear. But having lost three band members in a now-suspended Tuareg rebellion in Niger, the only Tuareg guitarist to go international had other things on his mind. Just 33, Bombino is fond of the word nostalgia, and he has a right. His homeland has been ravaged, the justifiable legal claims of Niger's Tuaregs on the country's foreign-controlled uranium industry met with ruthless expropriation campaigns. But the title Nomad doesn't merely indicate Bombino's longing for his land and his friends. It's a call to a vanishing way of life probably insupportable under any government. So his invocations of "heritage" and calls to "unite"--amid lyrics that are also notably woman-friendly, in keeping with the matrilinear retentions that distinguish Tuareg Islam along with its animist retentions--don't necessarily make sense as policy. But as is inevitable with songs in a foreign language, the translated lyrics can only inform the music: declarative melodies over straightforward handclaps-and-traps grooves in which Tuareg Hendrix worship manifests itself, as usual, more in sonics than in licks. The adaptability and ambition of that music lends emotional weight to political and cultural goals many of us would have problems with. As so often in the Sahara and many other places, ideology functions as an animating myth--a means to aesthetic vitality and power.

Basseke Kouyaté's Jama Ko first hit me with music as well, and I wasn't ready for it. The ngoni Kouyaté commands is a high-pitched lute he was the first to play standing up and has modified down to registers lower than his ngoni-playing father could foresee when Basseké was born in 1966. But it remains the folk instrument it was when I first noticed him adding acoustic intricacies to Youssou N'Dour's Rokku Mi Rakka in 2007. His two earlier albums with his Ngoni Ba band are enjoyable but unsurprising Africana: warm, unobtrusively grooveful collections that, should you investigate, turn out to celebrate national unity, mother love, and the simple pleasures of getting down. Jama Ko busts out of the box in a more urgent mood. The tempos are quicker, the rhythms busier, the solos trickier and more frantic; fortified by a female chorus, Kouyaté's wife and lead singer Amy Sacko has gained a soulfulness that's pained at times, and she's spelled by three male singers who teach, admonish, and in the case of visiting dignitary Taj Mahal, nut out. Quickly I heard that a lot was at stake. When I read the notes, I found out what.

Without question Kouyaté, a Bambara from north of Bamako in Ségou, is committed to multicultural fellow feeling, the key democratic value in a still tribalized Africa--that's why he called another album I Speak Fula. He also disdains fundamentalist Islam--two forceful new songs praise opponents of the 19th-century Sufi jihadist Oumar Tall, who ruled Ségou until the French took over in 1893. But the proximate reason he's feeling so intense on Jama Ko is that as recording began the junta deposed ATT, as two-term president Amadou Toumani Touré is known, supposedly because he'd been unable to quell the rebellion, although ATT's vainglorious replacement Amadou Sanogo soon proved better at beating down Touré's allies than turning back Mali's enemies. Kouyaté had counted ATT a friend since the two were introduced by Touré's press chief, who gets a praise song on the album, as do a mine owner, a big-time cotton farmer, and a wealthy patron from Ségou. Granted, some or all of these powerful men may help save Mali, and anyway, African musicians who don't flatter the rich are rarer than those who do. But I'm glad Kouyaté also includes a high-strung antiwar song on which Amy Sacko is joined by Timbuktu diva Khaira Arby, thus exploiting one gratifying Saharan musical peculiarity, which is that women play a much larger musical role in Africa's Muslim north than in the animist regions. That Arby had to flee her city as the Islamists overran it is also germane.

It was Arby's U.S. label that put out the Kickstarted Live from Festival au Desert Timbuktu, the first album from the annual event since the 2003 one that got me started. In 2003, luminaries as luminous and culturally impure as Robert Plant appeared. This time, Arby is the luminary, on the strength of her sand-blasted "La Liberté" and her guitarist Oumar Konaté's hymnlike "Bisimillah"--meaning "in the name of God" and intensified decisively by Leila Goby's soprano. All respect to Indo-Canadian world music chanteuse Kiran Ahluwalia joining Tinariwen to add some Pakistani ecumenicism via Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's "Mustt Mustt." But Ahluwalia excepted, outsiders were scared to come, as I sure would have been-full-scale war began just two days later. And once again the urgency is palpable, especially in a run of little-known acts that begins seven tracks in. Pointedly multi-tribal Timbuktu Songhai Samba Touré and Mauritanian diva Noura Mint Seymali share the mood, but it's Tuaregs who define it--on Igbayen's "Traditional Chant" and Tamnana's stomped and clapped "Odwa," I was reminded of how Men of Salt's Benanav learned to yell back in the cool night so his guide would know his camel hadn't lost the trail. There was a power there, that compelling illusion of eternal things, only now under extreme threat.

But assuming they're anything more than thugs with a hustle, AQIM and the more Tuareg-identified fundamentalist faction Ansar Diné also believe they do battle for eternal things. Which should remind us above all how hateful it is to brag that you fight, as the poet once put it, with God on your side. I'm a cultural impurity fan to my bones, and I know there's a price for it. It makes the world you live in, even in its aesthetic aspects, a more contingent place, and in a way a smaller one. But in other ways that world is larger too. So I'm heartened to remember that the guitar-band Imharhan's "Hanin Ekrachar" and the synth-inflected Amanar's "Efes" evoke what Benanav persuasively calls "the obvious air of permanence about this way of life" no less than Tamana's "Odwa" and Igbayen's "Traditional Chant."

As a cultural impurity fan, I'm obliged to make clear that I don't believe in Azawad, although I do hope, no doubt fecklessly, that Mali finds leadership more humane than either Sanogo's or ATT's--leadership capable of providing something like justice to the Tuaregs, a consummation that would be more likely if France and the U.S. wanted it to happen. But I'll keep listening to all this stirring music whatever its political shortcomings--shortcomings dwarfed, after all, by those of the politicos themselves. Benanav once gave his guides a laugh when he told them how beautiful he found a landscape of black mesas and red sand ridges. Their idea of beauty, they told him, was anything touched with a little green. "One does not live in the desert. One crosses it," the nomads say. This music is a way to do that-a way to get your dose of the eternal without forgetting the shortcomings of the day-to-day.

Barnes & Noble Review, May 22, 2013