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Songs of love and exile in the Sahara


Songs of love and exile in the Sahara

Musicians fleeing conflict in Mali keep their culture alive in a remote corner of Mauritania.
13 November 2015
Hamma Ag Awaissoune (left) is a charismatic guitarist and singer.

Bluesy riffs from guitars and lutes, mingled with the wail of plaintive voices, carry over the desert. This is the sound of exile for Malians living in southern Mauritania.

Musicians in Mberra refugee camp, in the arid region bordering Mali, are among more than 130,000 people who have fled Mali since violence erupted in 2012. Their songs often focus on exile, struggle and love, but the overall message is one of unity aimed at encouraging people not to give up.

Tales of battles and heroes

Amano Ag Issa is one of the few surviving people who can offer a first-hand account of the initial encounters between the French and the “blue men” – a term often used for the Tuareg people because of their indigo-blue coloured garments. With his great knowledge of the Tuareg culture, this old man who plays a traditional lute called a tehardent serves as a walking repository of Malian history. In 1994, following droughts and unrest in Mali, he founded the cultural group Tartit in a refugee camp in Mauritania, and went on to tour the world playing his music.

Today the group is known as Tadiazt, which in Tamashek language means "safeguard of cultural identity." Amano and his seven children make up the band – some play music, others deal with the group management and promotion. They returned to Mberra following violent episodes in Bamako in 2013.

Tehardent legend Amano Ag Issa founded the cultural group Tartit in a refugee camp in Mauritania, and toured the world playing his music.

Amano's first piece – "Yall," composed in 1948 – praises those struggling for Mali to gain independence from France, which they achieved in 1960. His raspy voice articulates the solemnity of the battlefield:

“Men with big tasks for the community, no room for the cowards!
This song is no joke, it is not by chance!
It's to remember those who gave their blood to defend our culture.
It's the history of Timbuktu.”

As the rhythm slows, a woman plays imzad, a single-stringed bowed instrument which is recognized by UNESCO as an endangered cultural tradition.

"My real fear is about young people abandoning their culture," says Amano. "I see their art as an evolution of cultural awareness that is complementary and not opposed to our original values, as long as they pursue their community's common objective."

"As I have the responsibility over my community, I will never let negative feelings prevail."

Although oral culture is traditionally transmitted from father to son, Amano teaches whoever is willing to learn. At the moment he has 15 students from the age of 12 in the camp. They will hopefully treasure and conserve Tadiazt heritage, as the old man has stopped producing music since he returned to the camp.

"As refugees, it is difficult to endorse our culture," he says. "But as I have the responsibility over my community, I will never let negative feelings prevail. There is a path which is traced; we only need people to step there."

Songs of exile

Attaye Ag Mohammed, a 35-year-old singer and guitarist, once jammed with Tinariwen and Terakfat, two world-renowned bands from northern Mali. But when rebels raided his house in Léré, in the Timbuktu region, in March 2013, he fled west to Mauritania. He first encountered UNHCR at the border town of Fassala, where he and his family received assistance before moving to Mberra refugee camp.

It was in his hometown that Attaye formed his band TASSAKE in 1999, after returning from six years in Libya, where, like many others, he had been forced to migrate in search of work following severe droughts. There, Attaye came in contact with the desert blues bands and started to put his own economic exile into verses. Since then, he prefers to let the guitar speak for him, as "the guitar is the voice of the soul."

Attaye's music evokes a nostalgic sense of roving:

“Everything we went through in our journey marks us with unforgettable memories of ourselves.
Exile is an irresistible compulsion, forcing people away from their homes.
But nothing in life can take away someone's love for the country of origin.”

He also remembers his hometown:

“My brothers, Léré's massacre cannot be forgotten.
I sing for Léré. There I left everything.”

For people like Attaye, a peaceful return home is the only solution, yet this seems unlikely in the near future.

Songs of love

With his fun-loving enthusiasm, Hamma Ag Awaissoune is a charismatic musician and a community mobilizer in Mberra camp. Born the son of a religious leader who still opposes his musical career, he was a refugee boy in Mauritania in 1993 when he made his first guitar by himself out of recycled tin and started to play music.

Despite the challenges, Hamma performed around Mali and Mauritania until 2012, when he performed at the world-wide renowned Festival au Désert. That was the last edition of the festival before violence put an end to all artistic events in Mali and forced Hamma to flee. Being a refugee did not dishearten him. It actually led him to play an active role in raising awareness among refugees. He dedicated his song Taflist, which means “confidence” in Tamashek, to encourage refugees not to lose hope.

Hamma is a writer of love songs, where the concept of love can be interpreted as commitment to a cause or love for the country of origin:

I know where the desert is.
I call on you, my soul, to keep living.
Love is a garden. If you don't give it water, it dies.
Love is religion. When we stop praying, it's lost.