“It is the music that bonds us, not the politics” – an interview with Ousmane Ag Mossa

by Charlie Crooijmans and Hatim Suleiman

– Utrecht. On the 31st of January the Sahara Soul ‘caravan’ with Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba and Tamikrest (without Sidi Touré) ended up at the world music venue Rasa in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Before the press conference with Bassekou Kouyaté started, we spoke to Ousmane Ag Mossa of the Tuareg group Tamikrest. The Sahara Soul project stands for solidarity and unity of Mali. Bassekou is a great proponent of this, but Ousmane explains to us that the situation is much more complicated.

Bassekou Kouyate en Ousmane Ag Mossa

How did Tamikrest start?

“I attended a non-governmental primary school financed by European funds. So I started playing music for school parties and family parties. It was just something to do for fun with friends and family, nothing serious. I didn’t have a dream to become a musician or a star. When we finished the primary school, we had to go to the city of Kidal for the higher education. There, at a public school, we faced another reality. We were treated differently. The teachers discriminated between the children in a racist way. We were only kids but looked upon as Tuareg, the people against the law of Mali. It was crazy. I had the ambition of getting a university degree and becoming a lawyer or a diplomat, just to have a chance to defend the cause of the Tuareg. However, there was another revolution in 2006, because the government of Mali never implemented the agreements signed in the 1990s. This brought a lot of problems to the Tamashek population, especially because the government of Mali did not make a difference between the civilians and rebels. Families had to go in exile or hide. It was impossible to continue the studies in this situation, and we decided to change course and start a music band.”

“It wasn’t easy starting from scratch with no contacts nor equipment. After three years of hard working and patience we got to play in 2008 at Le Festival du Désert. There we met the Australian/American group Dirtmusic and we started to collaborate. Chris Eckman of Dirtmusic got us in contact with Peter Weber of the label Glitterhouse and that is where our international career started.”

Wat is the difference between Tuareg and Tamashek?

“It is just terminological. Tuareg (which stands for the nomadic people of the desert, CC) is a term the Arabs, French and the Malians use. But we prefer to call ourselves Kel Tamashek, the people who speak Tamashek. The language directly related to the family of Berber languages spoken in North Africa.”

Has Tinariwen been your main influence?

“Tinariwen are the founders of modern Tuareg music. So of course, yes, Tinariwen has been an example, but I listened to other musicians as well, like Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan. I found my own way to play guitar, my own way to compose music, and my own way to arrange my songs.”

What is the meaning of the name Tamikrest?

“Tamikrest is a knot. It is a word with several meanings. It sort of symbolizes the different Tuareg people who come together from different countries and tribes for one objective.”

Do you live in Mali now?

“I am a nomad and we always move. The last months however I live mainly in Tamanrasset, a border town in Algeria. The situation in Kidal and in the northern Mali cities have become very complicated, especially for artists as the music was banned.” (see also Freemuse, CC)

What do you think of the current situation in Mali?

“It is very complicated. We always refused to subdue to the French colonization, even after they controlled the south of Mali. Everyone knows we always had this desert land as our home (from the old history, at the time of the Tifnagh alphabet). We suffered a lot from the splitting of our desert homeland between 5 states (Niger, Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya). This was not acceptable for us. We were always oppressed by the government and had the feeling that they even planned to make us leave to the North African countries. The first thing the government of Mali did, is to assure their power over the whole territory just like the French did. There were a lot of massacres committed against our civilian people in the war in the 1990s. They want to have the desert land exploited by international corporates and without us having a say on this. It is not only the government of Mali, but all the surrounding countries see the desert only a as rich source of oil, uranium, etc.”

“The last months after the Tuareg rebels took control of much of the land, AKIM and other terrorist organizations from Algeria and elsewhere came and took over. They were transforming our Tuareg cause into a nightmare. Nothing of what we originally wanted.”

What do you think of the French military intervention?

“I am for it and against it, and I’ll tell you why! We are for the intervention of the French because it will stop these terrorist organizations. But we are also against it, because they are taking the Malian army with them. The army of Mali does not make a difference between a terrorist and a non-terrorist. That will be a big problem for the Tuareg. The army will take advantage of the situation and take revenge on the Tuareg. It is stupid.”

Bassekou Kouyaté and this series of concerts promote a united Mali , what’s your view on this ? Must Mali stay united?

“We don’t have to have a united Mali. This festival Sahara Soul is touring around. We’ve been in London, Glasgow, Paris and now here. But it is the music that bonds us, not the politics. I have nothing against the musicians or the people of Mali, but we have a problem with the government. I can not talk about peace and unity, while the reality is a completely different story and my brothers are getting killed.”

Is there a problem between the people of Tuareg and the people of the south? (asked by the tour manager)

“There are separatist movements and there is a problem with the Gendarme taking justice into their hands and shoot whoever they think is a terrorist or because he is wearing traditional cloths. This is crazy and inhumane.”

Is it possible for you to play in Bamako?

“No, it’s almost suicidal (laughs). I saw it myself last year: a lot of people from Bamako and the south lived and worked in Kidal in the north where the Tuareg rebels had the power and they were not being bothered. While the opposite happens in Bamako where all the Tuareg were harassed by the government of Mali.”

Let us talk about the music: do you think playing together with the band of Bassekou is difficult because of the different styles?

“Not at all! The music of the whole world is connected. No borders! All one needs to do is to listen. For me playing with Bassekou is easy. It is still music of the same region and continent. We played once in Germany with Mongolian musicians who are from a totally different region and music. But as soon as you play together you can find your way.”

Do you like the music from the South of Mali?

“Yes I like it and I listen to it. They have many traditional instruments in the south which I like. For example the Kora which, for me, resembles the ‘ud sometimes.”

“There is a clear musical difference between our music and the music of the south. Between the music around Gao, Niafunke of Ali Farke Touré and our music. The differences in the rhythms stand out. Our music has more connections with the music of Algeria, the Sahara, and Morocco and even with Egypt. Not only in the rhythms, but also the way the instruments are played, even if it is the guitar instead of the ‘ud. On the other hand the music styles from Bamako to South Africa are connected.”

(the interview was in French, translated by Hatim Suleiman)

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