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Songs For Desert Refugees Richie Troughton , November 6th, 2012 12:58

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Since Tinariwen broke through to western ears just over a decade ago during a more peaceful time in their Malian homeland, Saharan rebel rockers have become known for their electrictrifying music rather than the hitherto cliché of a 'guns and guitars' image. However, recent events in Mali are threatening the existence of the world famous Grammy winning superstars of African music along with many other emerging groups from the region, including Tamikrest and Bombino, who also feature on Songs For Desert Refugees.  

In the north a "long-simmering Touareg rebellion has broken out into a full-fledged independence movement that's overtaken much of the region," the National Geographic reported in AprilM. "While in the capital, Bamako, renegade soldiers under the command of Captain Amadou Sanogo have staged a coup d'etat against the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré in late March, just a few weeks before democratic elections were scheduled to be held." Touré was forced to stand down on 23rd March, leaving the civilian population fearful and the economy depressed. This compilation has been released to provide support to those who have fled to refugee camps across the borders in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria.   

Two of the desert rock movement's most internationally known stars, Tinariwen and Tamikrest, open Songs For Desert Refugees with comfortably familiar sounding unreleased tracks, while for many on this exceptional disc it is a chance to showcase their sounds to a wider audience. And fans of Touareg rock's leading lights will find plenty more to discover, from the relatively well known Tartit, Toumast and Terakaft to Amanar, youngsters Tadalat, Ibrahim Ojo Experience (featuring musicians from France), Nabil Baly Othmani (whose 'Teswa Ténéré' was recorded live in the desert), Etran Finatawa and Faris (an Ital-Algerian who performs with Terakaft). It's different, but similar, sweeping up swirls of sandy repetitious grooves. It is clear that Tinariwen have been a huge influence as others create their own fresh take on the formula of their elder brothers. The artists and groups featured mostly hail from Mali, also Algeria and Niger.   

Agadez prodigy Bombino's live track 'Tigrawahi Tikma' clocks in at 13-plus minutes and is really allowed to stretch out. And the closer from Tartit, 'Tihou Beyatene' offers another side to desert workouts, with a female singer over a chanted and clapped percussive backdrop.   

The nomadic Tinariwen (which aptly translates as 'empty place') have been playing in ever shifting incarnations for more than 30 years and open Songs For Desert Refugees with 'Amous Idraout Assoul dAlwa'. Guitarist and vocalist Abdullah Ag Alhousseyni told The Quietus' Ben Hewitt in 2009 his grandfather and father lived a "good life in the desert". Alhousseyni said: "There was water for them, and the herds were very big. My ancestors could travel to markets and salt mines to the north, west, east and south without too many hindrances. They were healthy and relatively secure. There was music, poetry, festivities. That's the life I remember when I was young too."   

Droughts in the 1970s and 1984 "destroyed" this "happy situation" and were followed by a rebellion in 1990-91 against a government people had lost faith in. Since the Touareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) attacked military barracks in Menaka on 17th January, 2012, an estimated 220,000 individuals have had to flee from their homes in northern Mali. "Their opportunity was the demise of the Libyan dictator, Colonel Ghadafey, whose weapons gave the uprising its muscle and whose removal and death gave the NMLA a chance to reach its goals," writes Andy Morgan in the liner notes to this 12-track benefit album. "Ghadafey had previously managed to thwart any dreams of Touareg nationhood, whilst parading himself around as the protector of the Touareg people," he added. "And over the horizon looms drought, famine and a humanitarian crisis that looks set to rattle the most hardened hearts around the world."   

This month Salon wrote that Islamists in northern Mali had recruited and paid for as many as 1,000 child soldiers from "rural towns and villages devastated by poverty and hunger." The report added: "a new generation in what was long a moderate and stable nation is becoming radicalised, as the Islamists gather forces to fight a potential military intervention backed by the United Nations. One 16-year-old said the Islamists offered his family up to $400 a month in exchange for his service."   

Recently the situation has taken a sinister turn for the worse for Malian musicians, including those featured on Songs For Desert Refugees. Messages have been sent to musicians in Mali warning them to be quiet, or "disappear" and Western music was banned by official decree on 22nd August. The decree stated: "We don't want the music of Satan. Qur'anic verses must take its place. Sharia demands it." The punishments carried out under Sharia Law, including whipping and stoning, are shocking, yet these are the conditions people in Mali are living under. Instruments have been removed from homes that have then been set ablaze, in other cases there have been death threats and threats to cut off fingers that play guitar. Andy Morgan also reported in a recent dispatch on the conflict in Mali published by The Guardian that seven AK-47 wielding militiamen marched to the family of a musician in Kidal (a desert town in northern Mali home to several members of Tinariwen) and delivered a message to a family member that "if he ever shows his face in this town again, we'll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with." Different militant groups had taken over the region in April, sparking fears of a threat to all aspects of the area's culture. Malian rapper Amkoullel said of the music ban: "We don't need them to teach us how to be Muslims. We're a secular tolerant country where everyone declares their religion according to their feeling. And in any case, they know that a Mali without music is an impossibility."

The Quietus' review of most recent Tinariwen album Tassili said it included "protest songs written by people who have everything at stake in an uncertain world, as the result of ongoing conflicts could threaten the very existence of the restless Touareg people. In times like these Tinariwen's message is as relevant as ever." Now, more than ever. Other efforts by artists to support the people who have been displaced by the conflict include Khaira Arby, Vieux Farka Touré and more who have released a track calling for peace in Mali.    

Proceeds from the sale of the Songs For Desert Refugees CD are to be distributed between refugee charities Toumadré and Etar, donations can also be sent via this website. The album also serves as a great primer for this most vibrant of current guitar-based musical scenes, as one of the world's richest traditions of spoken word and song comes under threat.