How to cope with life when your motherland is in a state of war, when your safe haven changed into chaos and you are forced to flee your country in order to survive? What to do when your own identity is the only sole thing to hold on to, even though it is also about to break down? Do you take up your weapons and fight back? Or do you opt for a more difficult way: to throw yourself into music, writing lyrics which rise up from deep down your heart and spicing it up with emotional melodies of howling guitars and foreboding percussion?
A new generation of rebels
The band Tamikrest from Northern Mali firmly chose the second option. The seven group members are Tuareg, or as they call themselves the Kel Tamasheq (‘Tamasheq Speakers’), nomads who live scattered across the desert of North Africa and who are related to the Berber peoples. They all faced the harsh reality of their country. When Mali, Niger, Algeria and others were declared independent nations, arbitrary borders popped up in the Sahara. Previously, the nomads considered this vast area as their home. Suddenly their freedom was restricted and their nomadic lifestyle became at risk. The civil war in the 1990s, in which the Tuareg fought for their independence, did not help. The fighting continued and many died.
But nothing could interfere with the birth of a new generation of rebels, those who refuse to accept weapons and warfare as the only solution. In 2006, seven twenty-year-olds from Mali found each other and decided to form a music band. The name Tamikrest was a logical choice, in Tamasheq it means ‘knot, connection’ and it refers to the different regions from which the musicians originate. In hopes they turned their gaze to the future: let’s compose music with politically charged lyrics, in which we do not only sing about the problems of the Kel Tamasheq, but also express our desire for unity and peace.
The spiritual sons of Tinariwen
Talking about Mali and the typical Tuareg music style – a mix of desert blues and rock from the West, I am immediately reminded of that other famous band: Tinariwen. Already in the 80s they took their first steps in this music genre. But neither of them considers the other as competition, quite the contrary. Tamikrest has been granted the nickname ‘the spiritual sons of Tinariwen’. They see themselves as Tuareg musicians of a younger generation. While following the path that was paved by Tinariwen, they adopted the music style but also added new influences. It almost feels like it is their mission to strengthen the identity of the Kel Tamasheq through their innovative music in this ever changing world.
‘Adagh’, ‘Toumastin’, ‘Chatma’
In 2008 everything changed for Tamikrest. Meeting up with Chris Eckman, the front man of the American Australian band Dirtmusic, meant the start of a close friendship and a productive musical collaboration. Things moved ahead very quickly. Not doubting for a minute, Tamikrest accepted the invitation of Dirtmusic to start recording music in a professional studio in Bamako, the capital of Mali. Their first album ‘Adagh’ was launched two years later. The band toured the whole of Europe to perform at various venues and festivals. Their popularity increased and Tamikrest slowly secured their own spot on the Tuareg music stage. In 2011 Chris Eckman also produced their second CD, ‘Toumastin’, 11 songs ranging from raw rock to melancholic blues, with a touch of hypnotising psychedelic funk. Tamikrest clearly found their own way into the music genre.
In the meantime, Tamikrest found shelter in Algeria. Just like many other musicians from Mali they were forced to leave the country due to the recent outbreaks of violence. But they hold onto their nomadic lifestyle and travel everywhere around the world to perform. And even in turbulent times like these, they succeeded to outdo themselves on their newly released third album: ‘Chatma’.
Tamikrest in Brussels
On Tuesday evening 29 October, I visited the Botanique concert hall in Brussels. Armed with my camera, pen and paper, and of course my eyes and ears, I was totally ready for Tamikrest in concert. My mission: to monitor every second of the performance and to capture it through pictures, video recordings and notes. But being a reporter and a photographer at the same time, while all these amazing impressions startle you, is a hard task, if not impossible. I immediately realised this when the first song started. From that moment on, the evening passed me by in some kind of haze, but a breathtakingly beautiful haze. I got carried away by the traditional rhythms of the drums and by the groovy electric guitars sweeping across the stage like a whirlwind. The hypnotising voice of Ousmane Ag Mossa stirred the whole audience. And on top of that, a magical feeling occurred when the voice of female singer Wonou Walet Sidati was heard. The two voices smoothly merged together and their harmonies complemented the musical instruments perfectly.
The lyrics of the songs also resonated through the room. Ousmane Ag Mossa, the fixed songwriter of the band, took the floor every once in a while to explain some of the Tamasheq lyrics. ‘Tisnant An Chatma’, the opener of the evening and also the first song of their new album, deals with the suffering of Tuareg women. They are the first victim in every conflict. The chorus makes it perfectly clear: “who can understand the suffering in the soul of one who sees his sisters exhausted by the constraint of living within borders, in deep pain and with daily oppression.” The melancholic and bluesy song ‘Aratane ‘n Adagh’ tells the story of young Tuareg children and their fate in Mali. The electric guitars often changed places with acoustic guitars and their serene sound, very suitable to subjects like war, sadness and pain.
But the true strength of this band lies in their ability to shift between emotional tough songs and cheerful melodies which highlight their proud Tuareg identity. For example, there was a spark of reggae to be heard within ‘Itous’, and up tempo rock like ‘Imanin Bas Zihoun’ which made the whole audience clap and sing along with the traditional lilili-shouts. The hopeful song ‘Outamachek’ also made a big impression: “God, You who see everything, You who possess the power and strength, help us Tuareg people.” Tamikrest totally connected with all the people who attended the concert. For example, everyone was encouraged to surrender themselves to the music of ‘Elhoriya’, a song about freedom and its enormous value for the Tuareg people. To sum it up: this was an unforgettable musical evening with hypnotising blues, raw rock, and above all great hope for a peaceful future.
This post is also available in: Dutch