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The Storytellers

Tuareg band preserves tradition with desert blues

The Tuareg band Tamikrest hails from the parched plains of the Sahara. They are the latest in an illustrious line of Malian musicians to make it onto the world music charts and draw attention to their people's plight.

Dressed in the long robes and draping turbans traditional to Tuareg nomads, the Tamikrest band members sway slowly on stage as they start playing their hypnotic blend of traditional percussion, drone-like vocals and twangy blues guitars.

They open their concert in Karlsruhe, Germany, with the first song from their latest album, "Chatma," which was released in the latter half of 2013. Chatma means 'sisters' in the Tamashek language spoken by the Tuareg of northern Mali. The album is dedicated to the Tuareg women.

Ousmane Ag Mossa, who also sings and plays guitar in the band, composed the songs on the album, Tamikrest's third.

"The album is about many things but in particular about the suffering of women," Mossa says backstage before the concert. He sees women as bearing the brunt of the poverty, marginalization and conflicts which have affected the Tuareg in the past decades.

The women are also suffering under attempts to impose a hardline version of Islam on the Tuareg.

"A certain group wants to change our own way of life. They are insisting that women have to behave differently, that they shouldn't leave the house," says Mossa, referring to the fundamentalist Muslim movement that hijacked a Tuareg uprising against the Malian government and took control of large swathes of Mali in 2012.

Despite being pushed out by French forces in 2013, the influence of the Islamic hardliners remains.

"We won't accept this," Mossa says in a soft, considered French. "We have a liberal Islam and the kind of oppression of women that you find in certain Arabic countries isn't our way."

In fact, oppression, suffering, pain, war and hardship are continuing themes in Mossa's lyrics. After all, the 28-year old grew up in the Kidal region of northeastern Mali, which has been battered by conflict and rebellion since Malian independence from the French in 1960.

Music for his people

Dressed in black stovepipe jeans, a faded black jacket and cowboy boots, Mossa looks every inch a musician - kind of like a young Jimi Hendrix. Being a musician wasn't Mossa's original plan though - he wanted to become a lawyer but wasn't able to continue studies beyond high school. He views his music and lyrics as another "way of supporting the Tuareg cause."

"We don't have journalists who speak about our matters, the national media ignore us and others aren't interested in us. When people sing our songs or the songs of the Tuareg band Tinariwen, they aren't just singing, they are telling our stories."

Mossa picks up a red teapot bubbling on a portable gas stove and pours tea into a tiny glass. His brow furrows as he talks about why he chooses to write Tamikrest's songs in the obscure Tamashek language of the Tuareg instead of French.

Tamikrest on stage

Bands like Tamikrest see themselves as the voice of their people

"We don't have archives preserving the past and as time passes, many things disappear, such as our poems, our language, our traditions."

The music of Tamikrest, he says, could help preserve words, poems and traditions for future generations.

Musical isolation

Mossa's passion for playing and composing music is surprising. His family didn't listen to or play music at all and in the tiny dusty Tuareg settlement of Tin-Zaouaten on the Algerian-Malian border where he grew up, he wasn't exposed to other artists either.

When he was in school, though, he and his friends discovered the cassettes of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the iconic founder of Tinariwen, and were inspired to start playing for themselves. As well as the obvious influences of Tinariwen, Tamikrest's sound also incorporate elements of reggae, Western rock and folk music - after all, they also listened to Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Dire Straights and Bob Marley in their youth.

Although they had been playing together earlier, Tamikrest officially formed in 2006 and built up a local following in Kidal, the capital of the far northeast of Mali. Two years later, they scraped together enough money to travel across Mali to the legendary "Festival in the Desert" near Timbuktu.

Mossa on stage

Mossa says the Tuareg should have their own autonomous region

As luck would have it, at the festival Tamikrest camped opposite the US-Australian band Dirtmusic, who were so taken with Tamikrest's sound that they later invited them to Bamako and helped them produce their first record. This led to a European tour and then another. Several tours later, Tamikrest are back in Europe for 33 concerts.

Although he's tired (and looks it), Mossa says he "really loves" touring and his nomadic existence; he currently moves between Mali, Algeria and Europe. But regardless of where he is, Mossa's heart - and his music - will always be dedicated to fighting for the rights of his people.

"In the desert, we face the disappearance of our community," he sighs.

"We are not the majority. And the government has never respected the agreements they have signed in the past. The only solution is to have an autonomous region where the Tuareg people can be independent."

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