17 Jan 2013

The band from Mali I hugged in Shepherds Bush

I have to pinch myself to believe that it’s true. Just nine months ago I was on stage at the Shepherds Bush Empire handing out the Songlines magazine band of the year award. It’s the winning band that makes me disbelieve it ever happened. For it was the fabulous Malian group Tinariwen.

To hear them in performance is to bask in the desert heat and wind of the Sahara. Even their clothing finds them winding their fabulous duststorm-resisting cotton scarves around their throats. Let’s be candid, they are a gorgeous mix of men and women armed with tambourines, guitars, drums, flutes and more.  They had the audience on their feet that warm early May evening of 2012.

Today, no audience, and one of their number is in the hands of the grim Ansar Dine. This is the al-Qaeda linked group that has ravaged the religious places of Timbuktu, screaming “idolatry” as they did so.

Timbuktu! The city was no disappointment in the lexicon of historic romance. But this desert city in the north of Mali is now in the epicentre of today’s conflict. It had a thriving university before either Oxford or Cambridge had ever been thought of. In the 12th century it was one of the world’s crossroads of intellectual activity. I was there during the year 1999, making a film about the millennium. A thousand years ago, books were the main traded commodity in the city.

(Picture courtesy Lesley Lawson)

Some 30 years ago the river across and around which the city was built turned left some 17km short of Timbuktu, leaving a strange wide, dry trench. This tributary of the River Niger has never come back.

When I was there, I was taken to ancient buildings in which great piles of ancient books literally cascaded from ancient shelves and cupboards. Indeed Unesco had launched upon a $40m endeavour to save and preserve the books. Heaven alone knows what has happened to the books, the conservationists, and even the buildings in which, for a millennium they had resided.

The madmen that are Ansar Dine came for Tinariwen on 3 January this year. The group escaped into Timbuktu’s shaded alleyways, but sweet, mild-mannered guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida was caught as he tried to save his guitars. His playing, and his voice, are a central element in the texture of the band’s sound. No-one knows whether this man whose hand I shook, and who hugged me on stage in Shepherds Bush just nine months ago, is even still alive.

Tinariwen’s guitar-dominated Assouf music, with its Tuareg melodies, sounds to us like the roots of American blues. Today their sounds are stilled – one largely unreported victim of the inferno that is now the war in this far-flung land.

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