Tamikrest: A shining Saharan ray of Tuareg music, roots and culture
"A little bit of blues, with a little bit of rock,” and the Tamasheq [Tuareg] essence, "that's our style of music," explains the lead singer of Tamikrest, Ousmane Ag Mossa.
Tamikrest at its core is a Tuareg band. It was formed in the Kidal region in northern Mali in 2007, but with members from Mali, Algeria and France.
The band’s desert rock music has its roots in Ishumar Rock or Tuareg Blues but borrows from other music genres influenced by diverse cultures.
Tuaregs or Kel Tamasheq (those who speak Tamasheq), as they prefer to be called, centre the guitar at the heart of their modern music. Musicians have adapted traditional Tuareg notes and melodies to the guitar.
"While Arabic and Tamasheq cultures are similar, the music has some differences, as for the Tuareg music, the main instrument is the electric guitar while Arabic music relays on Oud"
A knot, a connection, a junction or a coalition – all of these words can mean Tamikrest in the Tuareg or Tamasheq language, a language that is not widely spoken or recognised, and which only the Berber ethnic group speaks (along with other Amazigh languages).
With “home-made guitars” Ousmane had learned how to play. From there the band moved upward to produce five studio albums, one live album and 25 original compositions.
While on tour in Algeria, Tamikrest’s Ousmane speaks about his itinerary, explaining that he will be on tour for a while as the band has been scheduled for around 30 concerts ending in July of this year. The first concert in Europe is scheduled in Mertola, Portugal, on 20 May and the second in Strasbourg on 24 May.
“Europe is different to any other place, it offers opportunities and support for artists,” says Ousmane, adding that there are a considerable number of festivals each year for musicians to play at.
In an inadvertent generalisation, he says that “Europe is not like Africa, because while there is an audience for our music, African countries do not invest massively in cultural events so music concerts are generally scarce there.”
In addition to European countries, Ousmane has played in Kazakhstan, Turkey, Korea, the US, Canada and Japan, but not yet a Middle Eastern country.
From East to West, a melange of melodies
Discussing Tuareg music without touching on the influence of the renowned Tuareg band Tinariwen is almost out of the question. Tinariwen was considered one of the first Tuareg bands to introduce the desert blues style and receive international recognition.
The band’s musical style and political message influenced many Tuareg musicians who took pride in this stance, and in having rubbed shoulders with its members.
"Understanding the complex history of the Tuaregs is essential to understanding their love for the Sahara and their identity"
Ousmane tells the story of his childhood where he often listened to Tinariwen and attempted to imitate the band’s style and play their songs. “Tinariwen had a large influence on my music,” he says, adding, “I was also equally influenced by other music genres and bands, such as blues and Pink Floyd."
He says that he is influenced to produce his original music by all different melodies.
True to his word, the band’s latest album Tamotaït meaning hope for a positive change in the Tuareg language, is a musical fusion encompassing Japanese orchestrations and English lyrics sung by the Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra.
While the Tuaregs and more broadly the Berbers live alongside Arabs, their music styles are different. “While Arabic and Tamasheq cultures are similar, the music has some differences. As for the Tuareg music, the main instrument is the electric guitar while Arabic music relays on Oud.”
He continues to explain how different instruments give different feels, and for him, Tuareg music gives the listener a feel of blues and rock because of the electric riffs.
Ousmane confirms that he listens to Lebanese, Syrian, Saudi, Jordanian, and Yemeni artists, although an opportunity for cooperation has not arisen yet.
Azawad: state, identity and fragmentation
Most Tuareg musicians, including Ousmane, talk openly about Azawad, the aspirant state for the Tuaregs which once saw the light of day when a secular rebel group declared independence in northern Mali in April 2012.
The short-lived state quickly crumbled and the rebels signed a peace accord with the Malian government in 2015, brokered by Algeria.
Ousmane hails from Kidal, once the capital of Azawad. He explains that “historically the Tuaregs have inhabited the whole of the Sahara area, but colonial France has divided it and created nation-states forging an artificial connection between different ethnicities in this region."
He quips that he does not intend to give a history lesson but, to him, “understanding the complex history of the Tuaregs is essential to understanding their love for the Sahara and their identity." Therefore, Tamikrest’s message through their music is to make the Tuareg culture and poetry accessible to all.
"Although based in Algeria, I’m a nomadic artist, I travel a lot and since 2014 I keep coming back to Kidal," he says, but retorts that “it's true, there were times when I did not visit, but these were the times when there was Al-Qaeda.”
Ag Mossa’s aspiration for a Tuareg state is clear. He says that the fact that Tuaregs don't have an independent state is a question that he dwelled on, and to him, he sees no geopolitical obstacle to it.
“For many internal and external actors, they see the Sahara as a place for exploring uranium and oil, for me, it is the land to which we belong.” He concludes, that he has “a lot of love for the Sahara.”
Azawad along with the Tuareg identity and cause remain at the front and centre of Tamikrest and the Tuareg music.
People should try “to understand the cause and keep the conversation going regarding the Tuareg identity,” concludes Ag Mossa.
Aman Al Bezreh is a trilingual journalist, a media training consultant at OpenDemocracy and a security analyst for West Africa and the Sahel.
Follow her on Twitter: @AmanBezreh