The voice of the Sahara

Photo courtesy of Nonesuch Records

Photo courtesy of Nonesuch Records

The trouble started in January 2012. Armed Tuareg, the nomadic people of the North African Sahara, had been arriving in Mali from Libya, where they had fought on both sides of the revolution. On returning home they joined the ranks of the recently established National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) seeking independence for the north of Mali.

By April 2012, the MNLA and several Islamist groups including Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had gained control of northern Mali and declared the independence of Azawad. But the MNLA and the Islamist groups proved unable to reconcile their differences and within months the more heavily armed Islamists had pushed the Tuareg rebels out of most of the region. When the Islamists advanced further south with the aim of imposing sharia law across the whole of Mali, the Malian government asked France to step in.

Bombino, the Tuareg rock star, was at home in Agadez in neighbouring Niger, playing with his daughter and watching the television on 11th January 2013 when a news broadcast announced that French Gazelle helicopters had attacked a column of Islamist fighters on their way to the central Malian town of Konna, while French Mirage 2000D fighter jets had bombed targets in an area in northern Mali held
by Islamist rebels. The fightback had begun.

“My heart felt like it was pierced with a knife,” recalls Bombino. “I could sense that a great deal of suffering was coming. I thought only of my family and I was very scared that I might need to take them into exile again,” he says.

Music and rebellion

Bombino’s life has been shaped by exile. In 1990, when he was 11, he and his family were forced to leave Niger by a rebellion. Tuareg from Niger and Mali who had fled the droughts of the 1980s were returning from refugee camps in Libya and Algeria, where they formed rebel groups. Clashes erupted as Tuareg in both countries protested their enduring political and economic marginalisation.

My heart felt like it was pierced with a knife. I could sense that a great deal of suffering was coming”

It was as a teenager living in exile in Algeria and Libya that Bombino first held a guitar and taught himself how to play. When peace agreements put an end to the Tuareg rebellions in the mid-1990s, Bombino was working as a herder and musician. While watching the animals, he practiced playing his guitar, drawing inspiration from the video cassettes of Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker and Mark Knopfler he watched with his friends.

Bombino returned to Agadez in 1997. He played in several bands and made money as a desert guide and cook’s assistant. In 2004, Bombino was assisting in the camp of a Spanish documentary crew in Agamgam, a dry river bed in the Ténéré desert north of Agadez. At night he played guitar. The documentary makers recorded his songs, which were released on his first album ‘Agamgam 2004’.

Photo: Ron Wyman

Photo: Ron Wyman

But the peace did not last. Tuareg rebels took up arms again in 2006 in Mali, and one year later in Niger, claiming their governments had not lived up to their side of the peace deals. “Many of them were then integrated into the Malian armed forces,” says Dr Ole Martin Gaasholt, an expert on the Tuareg. “They rebelled by deserting, taking their service weapons with them, and later looting military arsenals.” The rebellions were met with indiscriminate violence by the Nigerien and Malian national armies; the Tuareg responded in kind.

Tuareg guitar music had been closely associated with the rebellions since the 1990s and songs were used to teach communities about the goals of the uprising. This musical style was called “Ishoumar” which derives from the French word “chômeur” meaning unemployed. Some Ishoumar musicians were rebels themselves. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, star of the group Tinariwen, is the most well-known of them. The Observer wrote that in the rebellion of the 1990s, “He waged war against the Malian government with a Kalashnikov and a Stratocaster strapped across each shoulder.”

In Niger, Mamadou Tandja’s government saw guitar music as Tuareg propaganda, and the guitar was banned during the uprising of 2007, as it had been during the previous rebellion. When two of his band members were killed by the Nigerien army, Bombino fled to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. During his three years in exile, he composed many of the songs for his 2011 album ‘Agadez’.

Bombino rejects any links drawn between his music and rebellion. “People may say that my music is political, but if you look at the lyrics of my songs you will see I am singing about the desert, about love, about respecting history,” he says. “All I want to do with my music is to inspire peace and joy and pride in the Tuareg people, and to share with non-Tuareg people the beauty of our culture.”

People of the veil

The Tuareg, or Kel Tamasheq as they call themselves, have been roaming the Sahara for more than two millennia, raising cattle in the desert and trading it for grain in more fertile regions. Now a minority in countries spanning the region from Morocco in the west to Tunisia in the east, the Tuareg are famous for the indigo veils which are traditionally worn by the men.

In Niger, Mamadou Tandja’s government saw guitar music as Tuareg propaganda, and the guitar was banned during the uprising of the 2000s”

A proudly independent people, the Tuareg have defended their autonomy since the arrival of French colonists in the 19th century, and the uprisings in 2012, 2006 and 1990 have their roots in two earlier rebellions.

In 1916, a Tuareg called Ag Mohammed Wau Teguidda Kaocen took advantage of the French preoccupation with World War I to lead a rebellion against them. The Kaocen revolt took place around Agadez and in the Aïr mountains of northern Niger. Although Kaocen’s troops were successful at capturing some towns in the region at first, the rebellion was put down in 1917 when the French sent reinforcements from the southern Nigerien town of Zinder. Kaocen was hanged in 1919.

In 1963, Tuareg rebels from Mali’s northernmost Kidal area took up arms again. This time, the violence was directed towards Mali’s new national government, which was composed largely of black Africans from southern Mali. “Historically speaking the 1963 rebellion was very important,” says Dr Gaasholt. “[The Malian central government] crushed that rebellion quite savagely. This is when the movement of Tuareg to Algeria and Libya actually began. It also meant that the Tuareg and Arabs in Mali were viewed with more suspicion.” The suspicion was mutual, and the uprising sparked further marginalisation of the Tuareg and bred a deep-seated resentment in them against the Malian government.

French armoured vehicles heading towards the Niger border on 6th February 2013. Photo: Jerome Delay/AP/Press Association Images

French armoured vehicles heading towards the Niger border on 6th February 2013. Photo: Jerome Delay/AP/Press Association Images

‘Every Tuareg is family’

An uneasy peace deal was brokered in 2009. As before, it promised better integration of the Tuareg-inhabited regions in Mali and Niger into the state. But not all the Tuareg rebels were satisfied, and some retreated into Libya. It was these hardliners who would later join the ranks of the MNLA and start the 2012 rebellion.

Bombino returned to Agadez, and in January 2010 celebrated the peace with a concert outside the Grand Mosque. A thousand people showed up to see the performance, which took place on an improvised stage made from bricks covered with a carpet. One spectator was documentary maker Rob Wyman, who first heard Bombino’s music when he was working on a documentary about the Tuareg – it was the only cassette his local driver possessed.

Wyman had tracked Bombino down in Burkina Faso during his exile, and documented his search in the film ‘Agadez: The Music and The Rebellion’. A YouTube clip of the Agadez concert recorded by Wyman would be the first footage of Bombino that The Black Keys’ Grammy-winning guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach ever saw. He was instantly hooked. “I thought it was really amazing,” says Auerbach, “he was just rocking out, playing the guitar. Live is where Bombino shines. He’s electrifying.”

Auerbach offered to produce Bombino’s new album ‘Nomad’, which was recorded in ten days in Auerbach’s Tennessee studio. “I think it is the first time that Tuareg rock music has been recorded like this, so professionally,” Bombino says. “It pushes Tuareg music into a new dimension. There are many great Tuareg albums, like those of Tinariwen, but nothing that rocks so hard.”

As Bombino and Auerbach were putting the finishing touches to the album, Islamists in Mali were capturing major cities such as Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal from the MNLA, destroying Muslim shrines that the Islamists considered idolatrous along the way.

Despite the persecution he and his family have suffered, Bombino has no sympathy for the rebels who started the 2012 uprising. “Every Tuareg is family in a certain sense,” he says, “but I do not condone what the Tuareg people did in the north of Mali. We are all humans first, before we are this group or that group. This was a violation of the peace and freedom of the people in the north of Mali.”

A foot in each camp

On 23rd February 2013, President Hollande declared that the French military was in the “final phases” of the Malian invasion. A month later, he committed his troops to stay in Mali until the end of the year. But even if France manages to restore the peace in Mali, annihilating the Islamists who squeezed out the MNLA does nothing to address the Tuareg’s grievances. “You get peace agreements which benefit some – and particularly those who manage to get positions in the Malian state – but not all,” says Dr Gaasholt, “and this is why you get new rebellions.”

A spillover of the conflict into Niger, feared both by Nigerien Tuaregs and the central government, has not yet happened. But Bombino still sees challenges lying ahead for his native country. “We have one foot in the traditional world and one foot in the modern world,” he says. “We need to get both our feet into the modern world without losing our traditions. For the Tuareg in Niger, the situation is calm now and the society is getting more open to tolerance and bringing us into the national picture. But I fear that we will face many further problems.”

“We need only look to Mali to see how quickly everything can be destroyed.”

‘The voice of the Saraha’ was published in July 2013. Since then, Mali has seen the proliferation of Islamist terrorist militias including the Macina Liberation Front and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which have been been responsible for greater insecurity, rampant criminality and several terror attacks on civilian targets (see also: ‘In the line of fire’ in issue #21 of DG). The Tuareg rebels signed a peace deal with the central Malian government in June 2015 which offered partial autonomy to the country’s north but implementation of the deal has been slow, with the Tuareg claiming the agreement still falls short of their demands. 

Bombino released his new album ‘Azel’ on 1st April of this year and is currently on tour in Europe and the US. For dates, click here.  


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