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For Mali’s Tuareg, music speaks of suffering and the Sahara

The music of Mali's Tuareg people is music of resistance. Master traders of the Sahara desert for millenia, they've never enjoyed significant political power, and their musical culture reflects that frustration and struggle. But times have been tough for these people in the aftermath of a 2012 fight for independence, which was hijacked by al-Qaida. Special correspondent Monica Villamizar reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we turn to Mali, the West African nation that's home to over a half-a-million Tuareg people. They are an ethnic group that has controlled the trade routes in the Sahara Desert that spans Northern Mali for almost 2,000 years.

    But the Tuareg have never enjoyed significant political power, channeling their frustrations into a rich musical culture.

    Special correspondent Monica Villamizar went for listen.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Ahmed Kaidy says that the Tuareg people have always been warriors, but he traded his rifle for a guitar.

  • Ahmed Kaidy (through translator):

    It's a music of resistance. It's poetry for a people that have plenty of things to say. We sing about how we have suffered through politics, through racism against us and our ancestors from the desert. We say, we are here, don't forget us.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    The 42-year-old Tuareg spent the first half of his life as a soldier for Libya's infamous dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. Thousands of Tuareg like Kaidy were paid to uproot themselves, move to Libya and fight for Africa's outspoken ruler.

    But after Gadhafi was killed in 2011 during the early days of the Arab Spring, nearly 30,000 Tuareg made the journey south from Libya back to Mali.

    Ahmed Kaidy says the Tuareg are the masters of the Sahara, navigating the dunes only by following the stars, surviving in one of Earth's most inhospitable places. And their music reflects this experience of traveling the desert.

  • Ahmed Kaidy (through translator):

    It follows the rhythm of the camels walking. You are alone with the camels, and you hum to the rhythm of the camel. It's like a trance that helps you make the long journey ahead, and you are alone, no one to talk to.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Tuareg culture became known in the West thanks to music, and the so-called Tuareg blues.

    Every year, groups gathered in a desert festival outside the fabled city of Timbuktu. Even Western singers like U2's Bono flocked there.

    But, for the last five years, the festival has been canceled after violence ripped through Northern Mali. By January 2012, a Tuareg militia began to fight for independence from Mali and its own Tuareg nation. Guns from Libya fueled a revolution led by Bilal Ag Acherif.

    But al-Qaida used those same guns and hijacked the revolution. All of Mali became a battleground. Then, French troops landed to stop the Islamists in 2013, and U.N. peacekeepers soon followed.

    A cease-fire with the Tuareg was finally signed.

    So, Bilal Ag Acherif doesn't feel safe here in his own country. Under the peace accords, the U.N. troops or the Malian army must protect him, but he doesn't trust them fully and his security and bodyguards are Tuareg.

    Hi, Mr. Bilal.

  • Bilal Ag Acherif:

    Hi. How are you?

  • Monica Villamizar:

    I'm good. How are you? Very nice to meet you.

  • Bilal Ag Acherif:

    Before 100 years, the Tuareg controlled their areas, before colonial period. And they are the masters of their countries.

    But the situation changed totally. This is why there is always revolutions and resistance. So, I think today, I will hope, in 100 years, we will never have a Tuareg who is thinking again as the second class in their countries.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Ag Acherif says the majority of his people still dream of a Tuareg state, but not all leaders agree.

    Fahad Ag Al Mahmoud blames the Tuareg rebellion for unleashing the chaos that turned Northern Mali into a conflict zone.

  • Fahad Ag Al Mahmoud (through translator):

    The rebellion that started in 2012 really hurt the Tuareg. Today, terrorist groups are the masters of the territory. We are dominated by outsiders in our own land.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Ag Acherif would like to incorporate Tuareg fighters into the Malian army to help remove al-Qaida and ISIS from the north.

    Many Tuareg have fled the violent Sahara, abandoning their nomadic way of life. There aren't any tourists joining the camel caravans or visiting the bustling markets of Timbuktu; 600 miles south is the capital, where many are trying to relocate and build a new life.

    Bamako, the capital of Mali, is a world away for the Tuareg people. There is a river, and it's humid, and they are desert people, so for them the life here is completely different to what they are used to.

    Fadimata Wallet is getting her ancient instruments ready. Her mostly female group named Tartit makes the instruments they play. The band had been touring constantly, even performing internationally, but times are tough.

  • Fadimata Wallet (through translator):

    Since the rebellion and the war in 2012, we don't go on tour. I don't know if it's because it's a traditional music only liked by older people, or if it's because of the crisis.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    To make ends meet, Fadimata's band plays at weddings and also divorces. Tuareg culture is matriarchal, so when a woman divorces, it's cause for celebration.

  • Fadimata Wallet (through translator):

    Even if I'm physically here, my mind and soul are in the desert. I always need to live and think of going back to the desert. If I'm in New York or Washington, I think of my native village in the middle of the desert, sitting on a large sand dune. There, I am in peace, no phones or anything. I sleep perfectly well there.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Fadimata says she remembers the days when the lyrics to Tuareg music worked like a newspaper, and people learned about current events through song.

  • Fadimata Wallet (through translator):

    Our culture has a tendency to disappear. That's why I formed this group of women who spread their message around the world.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Today, Fadimata and her band play to only our camera, as the Niger River bears witness.

    For the "PBS NewsHour" I'm Monica Villamizar in Bamako, Mali.

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