Saturday, April 18, 2015

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"Even Though I Have a Malian Passport, I Don't Feel Like a Citizen"

Think Africa Press drinks tea with Ousmane Ag Mossa, lead singer of Tamikrest
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Photo Credit: Alexander Macfarlane

Tamikrest are the next generation of blues musicians to emerge from the Sahara. In a land flooded by Western musical influences, their second album continues to promote their unique desert sound. I caught up with lead singer Ousmane Ag Mossa at last weekend’s Home Festival at Dartington Hall, Devon.

As requested by his agent, I greet Ousmane with a cup full of brown sugar. A wet mist has descended over the gardens of Dartington Hall. Tamikrest are huddled around a kerosene stove in preparation for a long tea session, and I have been asked to supply the missing ingredient.

Ousmane considers the militant urgency in his Tamashek vocals to be universally accessible, as he felt was apparent in the alien language of his own musical hero, Bob Marley. There is a concern in his eyebrow movements that speaks beyond the depleting sugar supply. My use of the word ‘Touareg’- a term adopted by the Home Festival flyers and ever-present in a google search related to Tamikrest- is quickly addressed:

“We prefer to call ourselves Kel Tamashek, which means the people who speak the Tamashek language,” says Ousmane in softly spoken French. “The name Touareg was given to us by foreigners; we would never call ourselves this.”

On stage, his electric guitar work seems to hold a similar air of urgency. The bassist, rhythm guitarist and djembe drummer are all wrapped in cloth, faces veiled and eyes focused on their instruments. Ibrahim Ag Ahmed Salam, the energetic percussionist, whacks his calabash with a merciless side chop that echoes around the courtyard.

“Three members of the group- Ousmane, Ibrahim and Cheick Ag Tiglia (bass)- grew up in the same village, so we’ve known each other all our lives,” says Ousmane. “We started playing music together just to pass time. We were students, and we only played music for our own benefit."

"The village is called Tinzaouaten, which is exactly on the Algerian-Malian border. We were lucky enough to attend a private school that was built there by a Kel Tamashek/French organisation- we all know each other from this school. We then went to Kidal to attend college and we found a completely different situation because this was not a private school; we were treated differently because of our heritage."

"In 2005 and 2006 the Malian government got into a lot of trouble with Kel Tamashek. We wanted to finish our studies, but we found a situation in which we had to face the same problems that our parents had to face. We wanted to finish school and go for a diploma, but the situation wouldn’t allow us to do that. In 2006 Kel Tamashek rebelled against the government, and because of the resulting difficulty in studying we decided to form Tamikrest.”

Why is there a conflict between the government and Kel Tamashek?

It’s the same conflict you find in Niger. Our homeland has been divided into five countries (Niger, Mali, Libya, Algeria and Burkina Faso) and because of this we don’t have equal rights in our own homeland. We don’t have civil rights; we’re not treated like civilians by either the Malian or Nigerien government. This is the struggle that we’re fighting for.

So you consider Kel Tamashek to be more important than a Malian identity?

I don’t feel like a Malian citizen because I don’t have all the rights that they have. I don’t feel free. Even though I have a Malian passport, I don’t feel like a citizen.

I guess this will always be a problem for any nomadic community.

Our situation is a little different to that of the nomadic people in Europe. They have their homeland, and although their homeland has been divided it still exists as their own territory. Some Europeans still have a nomadic way of living- they follow the movements of their animals, for example- but it’s not as if they don’t have a homeland where they belong. Our problem is that we don’t have any right to autonomy whatsoever. Western countries are exploiting the desert; they mine for uranium in Arlit, Niger, and they exploit gold throughout the desert. We don’t profit from any of this. The exploitation of uranium in particular has a great impact on our way of living. We can’t keep living our traditional way of life, and we are no longer masters in our own country.

Can you see anything positive for Kel Tamashek in the future?

I see a solution, although realistically I don’t think it will be possible to regain all of our homeland. At the very least, there needs to be a political decision that gives us the right to decide what is going to happen to our land. We are the ones who should decide who is going to exploit and how we are going to live our life as a consequence. It’s essential that there’s nobody else who can make a decision over us; we want autonomy. It doesn’t matter if our land is officially part of Mali or Algeria- we want the right to decide who is going to exploit, and to have the power to stop them if we’re not happy with it.

Tamikrest’s new album Toumastin is distributed by Shellshock Records.

Official video for Aratan N Tinariwen
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