Toumast

Niger Republic

A nomad, who has spent his whole life amongst the compounds of the Sahara desert, is loath to leave. He follows his camels on the quest to find water, he tends his animals whilst absorbed in song, he wraps his face in the turban that protects him from the harsh desert sands. This is the life he has always known, a life he doesn't want to leave behind.

But, says lead singer Moussa Ag Keyna who together with female singer Aminatou Goumar and French producer Dan Levy has created some sublime new African desert sounds, behind that smile, the nomad on his camel hides many problems.

"He hides his sadness over the way the Touareg life has changed, the way the desert is slowly swallowing everything up, the political repression of our people. No one wants the Touaregs to find their own place in the desert, to find a way of staying there." Moussa's voice fades away, a deep, almost brusque sadness penetrating the air. He begins to tell his story, a story of loss, of struggle, of separation, but eventually, a story with a new musical beginning.

Moussa was born in a wide valley on the border between Mali and Niger, deep in the Sahara desert. Up until the age of 15, his life was unremarkable, the life of a desert pastoralist, living the way his elders had lived for centuries. And music was part of this life.

"Touaregs," says Moussa, "are people who sing. We sing as we follow our camels, going to find water, that's just part of our life, our culture: we sing."

But the desert life was hard. Severe drought and the resulting decimation of livestock during the 1970s and '80s caused people to scatter, moving north to Libya and Algeria in the hope of finding work. Others fled political persecution, as the Touareg people fought the Mali and Niger governments for recognition of their own territory. Many young Touaregs, like Moussa, joined the Touareg Liberation Front, training in Libyan military camps.

"In 1987, age 15, I left home to go and do my military training, to learn the modern war technique," says Moussa.

'I left running to the countries that are not mine, Looking for a knowledge that is not ours, opens the first song on the album, the deeply rich 'Ikalane Walegh'. Despite its upbeat, almost funk feel which starts the album off with a solo guitar riff and a strong kick, Moussa and Aminatou's vocal duet could almost be a melancholy war-cry.

"When I was in Libya," continues the guitarist-singer-songwriter, I finished my military training and I took up the guitar and that's when I started to sing the revolutionary songs, with my group, Toumast. This was 1990 and we were just 17 or 18 years old."

The name 'Toumast' means 'identity', he says. "I chose that name because I was part of the Touareg rebellion, where everything we did was for the Touareg identity. Even music was created in order to give existence to our identity."

"But," he says, "I never gave music much importance in that period, I gave my energy to fighting. But when I wasn't using my gun I would sing the songs of the revolution with an acoustic guitar, with the other soldiers. When we weren't firing Kalashnikovs, I played music, wrote songs, about what was going on in our war."

Music plays an important role in Touareg culture, and became an essential part of the long, drawn-out battle with the political regimes. Music was the message-bearer of the Liberation Front, it was the wind upon which the stories of success and failure, the call to arms, and the Liberation Front's purpose was carried. For Moussa, making music was a way that he could help his people find their freedom.

"When I started singing with my guitar, it was to help the Touaregs find their liberty. Music was never a job for me, I never thought I would earn money from it. For me, it was just a way of passing on a message, so that all the nomads of our land could find their freedom, so that they could stay peacefully in their own land, and to pass on a message of peace to the world."

'Hey, my brothers, blood has been shed,' sings Moussa in the rolling phrases of the track 'Kik Ayittma' as the chorus calls and responds throughout. 'And they have burnt the lands inherited from our history so I beg you, Prophets and Gods, to bring rebirth of the Touareg identity'.

These early Toumast songs called on men to fight alongside the rebels, at the same time explaining that they weren't trouble-makers but people who wanted to find a safe place to live. They were revolutionary songs with purpose and intent. But when Moussa was badly injured during battle in 1994, he was evacuated to France and his way of fighting his people's war came to an end.

"I was a fighter until I was injured, that's why I came to France and that was when I started to make music. That's how that album was born. I said to myself, 'there was a time when I wanted to fight with my gun. Today I have to fight with my new weapon, my guitar.'"

Moussa's outlook, and his music, changed when the Touareg Liberation Front and the government of Niger signed a peace treaty in 1995. He was preparing to go back to Niger when, three months after the treaty was signed, twelve of his cousins and members of Toumast were assassinated. He knew then that he would never be able to go back to his homeland, and his music became a poignant expression of the disappointment he felt towards the government, towards his people and for the situation in general, which showed no sign on improving.

'O my God, O my soul,' the crystal clear voice of Aminatou rings above the haunting dirge-like instruments on the track 'Ammilana'. The song launches into a rhythmic, melancholic, play between handclapping, electric guitar and the deep, grainy male voices.

'You, the men that have promised to give back dignity to our identity, to make the desert greener, to make trees grow there. All those hopes, the wind has swept them away.'

Despite the pain and sadness in the songs, there is also a passion for the desert that emerges through the lively rhythm and vibrant melody. "We love the desert," says Moussa, smiling. "We love its freedom. That's the life that makes us happiest." And life in France, he says, has meant the ability to use music at its fullest volume, to say things that in Africa are not possible to say, the freedom of expression, freedom to speak.

One of Moussa's fortunes has been to have met and worked with Dan Levy, a composer of music for film, theatre and contemporary dance based in Paris, who produced, arranged, recorded and mixed Ishumar. Together they took Toumast's Touareg melodies and tones and treated them to a contemporary production, without losing sight of the music's roots.

"The way Moussa had of composing and singing, and of playing the guitar was totally new for me," says Dan. "He isn't someone who just wants to play roots music or the music he's been listening to all his life. He wanted to evolve that music, and I found an incredible modernity in it."

Finding the style of music very close to jazz and blues, Dan started to incorporate new rhythms and instruments, like the saxophone, to give it an extra force.

"I was working with someone who was very far from everything I had been doing," says Dan, who had been interested in Touareg music before he met Moussa. "So what I learnt was to open up and forget the idea that this music had to have such-and-such a recipe for it to work. What I also learnt was that Touareg music has a different force, a real intellectual and political purpose that passes on a message. It's really an extraordinary kind of communication."


ROSE SKELTON