The Moroccan town of M’hamid el Ghizlane used to be a stopping place for desert caravans. To the south the Sahara stretches for 1,000 miles all the way to Timbuktu. Here the nomads would get their first taste of fresh water, milk, dates and women after months of arid nothingness. As the north-African nations won independence in the 1950s and 1960s, national frontiers sliced up the desert, making it harder to travel. In the 1970s, when war broke out between Morocco and a group of indigenous separatists, the caravans stopped altogether. Since then the region has been haunted by jihadists, criminal traffickers of drugs, arms and human beings, and pervasive poverty and corruption.
“The end of caravanning destroyed the social fabric of the Sahara,” says Halim Sbai, who comes from the A’arib, a nomadic tribe. In 2009, he founded a music festival called Taragalte, attracting artists from Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Algeria and Niger, representing the old warp and weft of Saharan society. “We thought, why not create an event that reunites all these people?” he says. The festival takes place each year in the relative cool of October, on a site outside M’hamid called Abaraz, which means “place of the caravan” in the old Berber language.
In 2016 it drew around 1,000 locals, who can attend evening concerts for free. The stars were Tinariwen (pictured), a band of Touareg guitarists and poets from northern Mali (full disclosure: I used to manage them). In the 1970s, its founding members were driven from their ancestral homeland by drought, poverty and oppression. They rebuilt their lives in Algeria and Libya. From 1990 to 1991 they fought, like many young Touareg men, with the Touareg nationalist militia, the MPLA, against the armies of Mali and Niger. From this collision of nomadic culture, contemporary city life and militancy came a new style of music that fused traditional melodies with the whiplash of the electric guitar.
Their songs are in part a rallying cry for the protection of their Saharan homeland. One song, “Tamatant Tilay” (Death is Here), includes the lines, “We’ll kill our enemies and become like eagles/We’ll liberate all those who live in the plains.” Another, “Toumast” (The People), is a call for tribal unity: “A divided people will lose its way/Each part of it will become an enemy in itself.” Their music is also an elegy for lost freedom, expressed with the word “assouf”, meaning homesickness, longing, the blues. In 2015, they recorded their last album, “Elwan”, outside M’hamid because northern Mali has become too dangerous. A Touareg uprising against the government three years earlier, and then a jihadist takeover of much of the country, turned the region into a sinkhole of crime and desperation.
Now a younger generation of musicians is taking up Tinariwen’s message of cultural pride. At the festival I met Sadam ag Ibrahim, the lead singer of Imarhan, who released their debut album in 2016 and are the most successful of the new crop of Touareg bands. He looks like a younger version of Tinariwen’s lead singer, Ibrahim ag Alhabib – the same mane of frizzy hair, the same lanky frame. But his youth, in the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset, couldn’t have been more different from the nomadism of Ibrahim’s boyhood. The dream of an independent homeland, which they call Azawad, is still strong. But the means of acquiring it have changed. “An independent Azawad is coming,” Sadam told me, “Not today, not tomorrow, but one day. But it’s neither guns nor music that will bring independence. For that you need politics. Guns get you nowhere.”
“You’ll never make that dream come true,” go the lyrics of their song “Adounia Azjazaqat” (I’ve Looked Hard at Life). “Better to be enlightened, devoted and true to your word.” They have replaced the militancy of Tinariwen with a call for education. For them, joblessness is at the root of the Sahara’s most urgent evils, especially the jihadist insurgency and criminal smuggling. An illicit opportunity is better than no opportunity at all, and the temptations of the dazzling sums of money on offer are often simply too great for many of the region’s unemployed.
In M’hamid a group of boys were inspired to form a band after they saw Tinariwen perform in 2009. Now they can play Tinariwen’s songs note for note and word for word, even though they don’t speak Tamashek, the language in which Tinariwen sing. “Their music bewitches us,” one of them told me. And what about Ibrahim? I asked. He’s much older than you. What do they see in him? “His music soothes us because he talks about the youth, the desert and about revolution. We empathise with the suffering that exists where he comes from.” They call themselves the Young Nomads.