The crisis in Mali, Tuareg music and rebellion

For some people, when you say “Timbuktu”, it is like the end of the world, but that is not true. I am from Timbuktu, and I can tell you we are right at the heart of the world.
— Ali Farka Touré. from the liner notes to his 1994 album, Talking Timbukutu

In 1994, I was looking forward to seeing the great Malian guitarist for the first time, in a concert with American Ry Cooder, with whom he had recorded the above CD. However, not long before that concert, word came out that Touré had cancelled his tour, because of “fighting and unrest” near his home.

At the time, I knew nothing of the long-running struggles between the Tuareg and the Malian government; I may have known nothing about the Tuareg.

Ali and Ry did play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage earlier that year:

18 years later, as Mali experiences a virtual civil war in the north, initiated by the largest, and best-armed uprising yet by Tuareg rebels, Ali Farka’s son, Vieux Farka Touré joined fellow Malian musicians Khaira Arby and Bassekou Kouyaté in a Bamako studio as guest performers with Je Conte and the Mali Allstars to record a plea for peace in their country, “Le monde pour La Paix”.

Read about, and hear it at

Khaira Arby, a cousin of Ali & Vieux, and also from Timbuktu, is about to embark on a North American tour, and is scheduled to play the Lula Lounge on May 8 — if of course, she is able to leave Mali.  While a concert is far less important than what is happening in Mali, I do hope she’ll be able perform here. I have mentioned her frequently on this website since first seeing her in 2010. Her CD, Timbuktu Tarab is highly recommended.

And while music is clearly the focus of this website, it’s music from Mali and elsewhere in the region that has been most covered, so I thought it appropriate for a post about the situation.

The crisis of course began with the largest armed insurrection yet by Tuareg rebels in the north. Musically, there’s no doubt that Tinariwen is the group most identified with Tuareg music, and most responsible for its popularity around the world. When they first started performing internationally, it would have been hard to imagine that in a few years they would be taking home a Grammy Award. But perhaps part of their “exotic” appeal as they began, in addition to their sound and dress, was their history as former armed rebels – ones who had in fact, spent time in Gaddafi-funded Libyan training camps (as noted in the song “Ahimana” on their most recent CD).

A column in the New Yorker this month, “Rebel Music: The Tuareg Uprising in 12 songs by Tinariwen” discusses Tinariwen’s history and their music.

According to some reports, a Tinariwen song, “Imidiwan Segdet” may be the “national anthem” of the newly declared independent country of Azawad.

In the clip below, the group is seen waving the flag of Azawad while on tour. (Two members weren’t able to tour; they were trapped at home in fighting between the Malian army and rebels). The group’s Eyadou Ag Leche talks about the meaning of the music and their political views.


An interesting article about the group, their history and politics, and the West’s sometimes changing view of them is here, “The meaning of Tinariwen” The first video link in the article is one the group made about the 1963 Tuareg rebellion in which member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s father was executed by the government.

The article also includes a link to Andy Morgan’s website. He was the long-time manager of Tinariwen, and writes extensively and intelligently on Saharan issues and music.
(Ironically, this article is written a few hours after news came out that the concert — scheduled for tomorrow at the Lula — by Tuareg guitarist (from Niger) Bombino has been cancelled because of a visa problem).

Earlier today, Sean Barlow of Afropop Worldwide wrote a good piece on the Malian situation, from the perspective a long-time writer on, and supporter of African music. He began by talking about the song, “Le monde pour la paix”, mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Khaira’s heritage is Berber and Songhai. Vieux’s is Sonrai. Bassekou’s is Bambara. In my many interviews with Ali Farka Toure, he always delighted in the multi-ethnic heritage of his beloved north and pointed out that he drew from different languages, folklore and music styles for his art. When I met Khaira in Timbuktu in 2000, she likewise talked about Timbuktu as an exciting and rich crossroads of different ethnic groups that inspired her.

Songhai, Tuareg, and Sonrai artists all perform takamba, a style marked by slow, graceful arm and hand movements that you see in every Tinariwen performance. The origins go back to the Songhai Empire, hundreds of years ago. And the Tuareg developed their own version in the last century. One of Habib Koite’s first hits was “Fatima” also in the takamba style, showing his eager embrace of all Malian culture, not just his own ethnic group. At the Festival in the Desert in Essakane in 2003 (along with Mike Orlove, Anastasia Tsoulkas and their spouses and Robert Plant) we saw Oumou Sangare, the premier Wassoulou singer from the south perform takamba and she called on stage AFT who danced it brilliantly–beaming and proud. The point is that Mali is a multi-ethnic society through and through.

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His article goes on to talk about the political and military situation, but more importantly about the crisis facing the people of northern Mali. Amnesty International writes,

Northern Mali is on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster and aid agencies must be allowed immediate access to avoid further civilian deaths, Amnesty International said today.

The three northern towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu have experienced days of looting, abductions and chaos since they were occupied by armed groups late last week.

“All the food and medicine stored by major aid agencies has been looted and most of the aid workers have fled,” said Gaëtan Mootoo, Amnesty International’s researcher on West Africa.

Barlow’s article provides links to various aid agencies:

Finally, this morning, CBC Radio One’s show, “The Current”, broadcast a three-part segment about Timbuktu, and how its great treasures (the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are in danger. The last interview also tells some of is fascinating history.

You can listen to the show here. There are also links for more information.

Let’s all hope and pray for the country and its people.