Ghosts of the Thar Desert: On the frontline of climate change in Pakistan

Ebu squints and her face creases into a dozen lines. She is peering down into her well but the act is pointless. She knows there is nothing down there. In moments of despair, life in Mal Nor, her drought-stricken village in the Thar Desert, seems equally senseless. With the climatic changes under way here, her ancestral lands in this part of south-eastern Pakistan are becoming almost uninhabitable.

“It used to rain a lot before,” she says, speaking in the Marwari language that is specific to this region. “It doesn’t now. It has drastically stopped.”

We stand by her well, near a couple of thatched huts and six sleepy goats that are tethered to a post. Her son and two young women look on; her small grandson, chapatti in mouth, stares, then breaks into tears. The surrounding landscape is sparse: sand, shrubs, the odd teak tree.

Ebu and her family are from an indigenous tribe called the Meghvars, who have lived in the Thar Desert for thousands of years. The land is full of such tribes; pastoral people whose livelihoods have mostly depended on goats and cattle.

Camels, peacocks, snakes and blackbucks share the arid 200,000 sq km expanse, most of which lies across the border in Rajasthan, India’s north-western state.

Scarce rainfall is not new here. Many of the elders describe their age in relation to a chapano (drought). Ebu says she has survived several chapano, at times eating merely grass and ants. These people are born survivors but their days in Tharparkar, as the district is called, might be numbered.

Farmers are losing their crops, cattle and goats because of the drought. Children are starving to death. Villagers are taking their own lives. Near Mithi, Tharparkar’s main town, several locals tell me that rainfall has halved in this region over the past two decades.

And it’s getting hotter. Across a range of indices, the Nasa Earth Exchange (NEX) has found that, over the past 50 years, temperatures in Sindh province, south-eastern Pakistan, have risen by more than 1.5C, around double the global average. Something has changed.


For a decade, I worked as a policy analyst for the UN and other organisations around the world. Reading countless reports at my desk in Rome, I became familiar with Pakistan’s particular vulnerability to natural disasters.

Over a 20-year period between 1998 and 2017, it experienced more than 140 climate-related events, such as hurricanes, flooding and heatwaves, causing more than 10,000 deaths and $3.8bn in losses each year through damage.

When I left the UN a few years ago, it was to write independently about hunger, climate change and other development challenges. In January, I decided to visit Pakistan to try to learn more about the lives of some of those most vulnerable to global warming.

The road that I take from Digri to Mithi shimmers in the heat. It was improved recently, with coal money, though the funds mostly went into constructing an open-cast coal mine and power station, located 70km away. The complex, known as Thar Coal Block II, was developed as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $60bn energy and infrastructure scheme that is under way across Pakistan. It began supplying electricity to Pakistan’s national grid in June.

Despite the asphalt-softening heat, which is now killing animals and people in southern Pakistan, the country’s efforts to extract fossil fuels from the ground are accelerating, generating ever higher carbon emissions.

For years, Pakistan’s population and manufacturing industries have suffered blackouts. CPEC offers a means to resolve the country’s energy crisis and, like all developed countries have done in the past, it helps both Pakistan and China pursue their fossil-fuelled industrial growth.

Banaras Khan, who is supporting climate-smart agriculture in Pakistan for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Islamabad, tells me the recurrent drought phenomenon in Tharparkar “gained momentum after 2013 and is becoming more frequent”. He says that a recent climate analysis the FAO conducted for Sindh province shows this can be attributed to climate change.

On the ground in Tharparkar, the land is so barren that even pasture cannot grow. Along the roadside, there are carcasses of animals, abandoned and atrophying, their skin caved-in between their bones. Locals here say “your livestock are like your diamonds” — a coping strategy when all else fails. When their animals starve, the owners are crushed.

A local historian called Bharomal Bheel tells me he visited a village called Jorvu, and saw a man who had just lost 300 sheep. Starving and dehydrated, they were killed by diseases. He was “completely broken”, crying in despair, says Bheel.


Alexander More, a climate historian at Harvard University, says Pakistan exemplifies how climate change can drive existing weather patterns to new extremes. “When we think of climate change, we usually think of global warming. But the reality is that, while temperatures are going upwards, with it also comes a pattern of increasing climate extremes. Southern Pakistan is an example of a place that is experiencing increasing droughts.”

Across the whole country, the risks are growing. The Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges in the north of the country hold 5,000 glaciers. Temperature rises or earthquakes can trigger what are called glacial lake outburst floods, or GLOF, which threaten populations living in the valleys and plains below.

In 2010, the Booni Gol outburst killed almost 2,000 people and destroyed 1.6 million homes. Thousands of acres of farmland were damaged. Today, analysts say seven million people in Pakistan are vulnerable to such floods.

The effects of rising temperatures are equally ominous for Pakistan’s lowland populations. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report described how a global rise of 2C would have appalling consequences for South Asia’s megacities. By 2050, Karachi will have an estimated population of 24 million, and be likely to experience “deadly heatwaves” of 49C on an annual basis.

Sindh province was once at the heart of the great Indus Valley civilisation, which emerged more than 6,000 years ago, and thrived by channelling water via canals and dykes.

Today, high population levels and poor water management mean that Pakistan is running out of fresh water. The Indus River Basin Authority believes the country will suffer a shortage of 37 billion litres by 2025. These concerns will be intensified by potential “water wars” between India and Pakistan, should current tensions between the neighbouring countries escalate.

In the Thar Desert, communities already face an existential threat: there is nowhere near enough food to go round. Hundreds of thousands of people in Tharparkar, more than half the district’s population, face acute food insecurity, meaning they experience hunger but can go entire days without eating anything. Some 400,000 children under five are acutely malnourished, according to the FAO. More than 500 children died from hunger-related causes last year.

As crops fail, and livestock wither and die, the communal nature of life that has bound people in the Thar Desert together for so long is breaking apart. Villagers can no longer afford to stay on their lands. Ebu says that “most healthy men” have had to migrate to cities or towns where they hope to find work as day-labourers. “When they return,” she says, “they only bring things for their own family.”
Others complain in similar terms. Bheel calls it a “drought in community”. Perhaps it is this — the sense of togetherness evaporating — that causes most unease. “We are constantly worried,” says Ebu. “We’re in a constant state of anxiety. It’s as if we are drowning.”

As with most slow-motion humanitarian crises, the issue is not that there are no solutions — but that they require political will, finance and attention. For dry-land communities like those of the Thar Desert, technologies such as land terracing, drip irrigation and mulching can save water and preserve soil quality, sustaining the livestock and crops on which people depend. Such steps would mean major financing as well as government and international support.

The broader need to meet Pakistan’s energy requirements is also not unattainable; billions of dollars of investment are pledged at climate conferences every year. Some of this money could and should be invested in developing countries like Pakistan, enabling them to shift their fossil fuel-powered growth models towards renewable energy alternatives. Overall, it is a massive project and, in relative terms, there is very little time. It’s hard to feel optimistic.


One evening, Bheel tells me several tales, from legend and personal experience, recalling djinns (ghosts) and deos (spirits) and the alarming feats of the goddess Aver Devi. “My grandmother’s ghost stories were the worst,” he says, “because they seemed so true.”

Reality is beginning to attain something of these stories.
Late one night, with a guide, I visit a village in the desert. The moon and stars are bright enough to reveal our shadows on the sand. In the monochrome light, the landscape resembles a blackish sea. In silence, we come across some abandoned thatched huts; black shapes in the darkness.

We find other huts. Two figures emerge. A man says his eight brothers and their families have left this village. His is the last family left. It is a ghost village. Soon, because of climate change, places like these will be uninhabited, and the desert wind will be the only sound; a long, drawn-out gasp of what once was.

Financial Times Magazine

Tunisia Talents

Aïcha Snoussi
I’m sitting in the shade of a courtyard in the medina of Tunis, and Aïcha Snoussi is telling me how she identifies with the octopus. “I love all the limbs, the ink, and how they release it to hide themselves with clouds,” she says. The artist’s fascination comes as no surprise. Snoussi’s work is alive with gothic visions. She conjures illustrations of crazed, bionic-anthropomorphic creatures, sometimes powered by a medusa’s head of cables, whose brains are exposed to the viewer. She says she always liked to draw “ugly, destroyed characters. Excluded characters.”

Snoussi grew up in Hammamet, near to Tunis. She studied in Tunisia before moving to Paris, where she is currently based. The fact that as a Tunisian woman she is able to exhibit such graphic images may reflect a more liberal Tunisian attitude towards art and the artist. This permissiveness was also indicated by her 2016 exhibition at the Tunisian Embassy in London, where she covered the interior with red ink drawings of vegetated, mechanic, sexual beings. “With red everywhere, it felt like being inside a body.” And this, perhaps, is Snoussi’s aim: to leave our heads, and be with our bodies, in all their instinctive, unspeakable, irrational ways.

Portrait of the Tunisian folk duo in Tunis, Tunisia

Yuma

Sabrine Jenhani and Ramy Zoghlemi are sitting opposite, posing with plates of fruit in Duken, a new gastro-café in the medina. Quick to laugh, playful, and on the cusp of stardom, they are Yuma, Tunisia’s vivacious folk music duo. On stage, Jenhani’s voice can be heart-wrenching, powerful yet fragile, while Zoghlemi accompanies in harmony, singing with a deep, breathy intensity, as if to himself, while playing acoustic guitar. Their melodies are intimate in themselves. But sung sincerely, in Tunisian dialect, across themes scarcely addressed by other artists, they are reaching a young generation eager to express themselves.

“People are making declarations of love after our concerts. Maybe they wouldn’t have before. We are addressing taboos and influencing changes,” Jenhani tells me. There is an implication that they may inadvertently be challenging familial traditions of arranged marriages. “Our songs are focusing on metaphors of love and emotion that are more real to people’s lives,” she adds.

At this point, a giddy adolescent girl rushes into the café to ask if she can have a photo with them. Yuma’s first album, Chura, and their second, Stardust, are pushing boundaries artistically. Their fanbase is growing fast, and they were awarded the ‘Public Vote’ at the Journées Musicales de Carthage in April 2017.

Yasmine Sfar
“For a long time creativity was not encouraged in Tunisia,” says Yasmine Sfar, manager of Tinja, a homeware hub. But this, she adds, is changing. “Design is being born,” she tells me. “There is a real wave of desire to do things, different things.”

Named after a little town in northern Tunisia, Tinja’s work evokes the colours and materials of that region. The boutique is filled with wicker lamp shades, rusted clay pots, blown-glass gourds, and pale yellow, grey and lime-green cotton cushions. The style is artisanal chic; hand-crafted, with modern, clean designs. “All our pieces are made in Tunisia, using local materials,” says Sfar.

Since it began in 2007, Tinja’s basic model remains the same: working with locally-crafted artisanal products, such as pottery from Sejnane, they then develop the designs from their workshop in Tunis. Success arrived after the Office National de l’artisanat invited them to exhibit at the Salon Maison et Objets, a major design fair in Paris. From 2012 they began producing a proper catalogue and exporting to clients all over the world. Despite acknowledging that they “offer a more avant garde vision” than most, Sfar says that their “inspiration still comes from meetings with artisans around the country.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salah Barka
Fashion designer Salah Barka also recognises the influence of Tunisia’s artisans. “Our culture is very much based around clothing,” he tells me from his home in Menzah, a green neighborhood in the west of Tunis. “In each town in Tunisia people had to have five to ten outfits; for the day, the night, as well as for social and religious ceremonies and festivals. There used to be local artisans making those clothes.” He still derives inspiration from these old Berber communities’ ethnic outfits.

Black Africa is clearly important to Barka, too. “The first time I went to Africa, to Niger, I cried. It was a dream. I felt I was with family. I loved the energy of the people, the simplicity, and the poverty, which is actually a richness, une richesse humaine.” It was 2009, and Barka won second prize at the International Festival of African Fashion (FIMA). Today his work often draws on the motifs, colours and history of sub-Saharan African cultures.

A black, gay man, Barka has had to overcome a latent racism and homophobia that lurks among a minority of more traditional Tunisians. The youngest of 12 siblings, his family, and mother in particular, were supportive. “If you respect yourself, people respect you,” he says. “This has really helped me with my work.”

Portrait of the film director in Tunis, Tunisia

Sélim Gribaa
It is sunset, and film director Sélim Gribaa is animated. We are chatting on a rooftop in the medina, not far from where his last film, Passicalme, was shot. The settings could not feel more different. Passicalme is strange and tense, a surreal, nightmarish sequence of individuals preparing to send two people through a shadowy gate (the medina’s Bab Jedid). Gribaa tells me his head has always been filled with abstract scenes. He says it was “after watching Mulholland Drive that I decided I wanted to make films”.

Yet Gribaa’s first award-winning short film, The Purple House, produced in 2014, was more conventional. The story centers around Hsan, a naïve old man who spends all his money painting his house purple, the colour of the national political party, believing this display of loyalty will yield advantages. But the party is ousted from power in a popular uprising. As the tragi-comedy reaches its climactic end, Hsan burns himself. It is an ironic nod to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose dramatic suicide sparked the beginning of the 2011 Tunisian revolution. Given its success, I ask why Gribaa chose such a new genre with Passicalme. “I wanted to evolve. Since I’m an autodidact, I didn’t go to film school, I need to try new styles to keep learning,” he replies.

Nataal

Photography by Christopher Wilton-Steer

Yuma

yuma

“It was vital, imperative, natural, instinctive. Perhaps we arrived at a musical universe, or perhaps we created it”, says Ramy Zoghlemi. He grabs his exuberant beard and funnels down it with one hand, while staring at a little espresso coffee cup on the table. Seated alongside is his collaborator, Sabrine Jenhani. Together, they are Tunisia’s folk duo Yuma. 

Yuma’s music is lovely; intimate, melodic, melancholic, powerfully simple. They combine Tunisian dialect with hints of western, almost Celtic melodies. Sabrine‘s voice is fully emotive, forceful yet fragile. Ramy accompanies with deep, breathy vocals, while playing acoustic guitar.

I saw them play the week before at the Rio cinema in downtown Tunis. The place was full, and filled with an excitement that was palpable and contagious. It was thrilling to see people responding to a performance in this way. I found myself wondering why the crowd was so excited.

It takes 3 minutes online to realise that Yuma produce music that is highly accessible to the western ear. As a blend of local dialects and sonorous, expansive melodies, perhaps it was simply the originality of the music, its novelty in this setting, that was so exciting to everyone?

But when we meet, a week later, in a café in the Tunis centre ville, Ramy offers another clue: “Sabrine and I are representing a Tunisian youth that has a great thirst for music, but also for love, hope and grace”. The primary musical vehicle for Tunisian youth culture is hip hop. Also delivered through dialect, it appears to offer mainly anger and swagger for those looking to embody the genre. Yuma offers an alternative. Through Yuma’s music, Tunisians can share in the celebration of their language, idioms and adages, within a genre, folk, that accommodates a wider gamut of emotions. As such, when Ramy says, “we have become spokespersons for a generation” it begins to make sense.  

It has all happened very quickly for Yuma. They formed just over a year ago, in late 2015. Their break came in the summer of 2016, when they played at the Hammamet music festival, seen as Tunisia’s most important music event. The rest is starting to become history. They are working on a second album, called ‘Stardust’. Sabrine, 30, and Ramy, 28, are gaining a national, or even international, following. 

Yuma’s popularity must also be seen in the context of a Tunisian culture that, for all its liberalism vis-a-vis other Maghreb and Arab countries, remains conservative. The duo’s decision to abandon steady jobs to pursue a career in music is unusual. For Sabrine to collaborate with a man, in an industry dominated by men, is also unconventional. For young Tunisians their courage must be inspirational.

“To an extent we have become cultural figures. It wasn’t deliberate. It just happened because of our expressing ourselves. It was through our desire to be personally satisfied” says Sabrine.

And here lies a final insight into the duo’s reception at the Rio cinema. Yuma are pursuing their purpose on their own terms. They do not pursue any overt political agenda, but their freedom of expression is a political act in the context of Tunisian society. Their art is theirs. This exposure is vulnerable, and therefore connecting.

I ask about the sadness I hear in their music. Sabrine responds “C’est moins triste que intimiste [It’s less sad than intimate]”. What matters, she later says, is “to be real”. With the courage of this conviction, in their quiet way, Yuma are making big noises on Tunisia’s cultural scene.  

True Africa

Jonzi D

Jonzi

The name of the upcoming Sadler’s Wells dance festival is both a memorable pun and acknowledges that substantively, it’s breaking the conventions of both genres of performance art it has adopted. Breakin’ Convention  is hip hop theatre; a fascinating affront to both contemporary dance and standard b-boying (break dancing). Somewhere between the stagecraft of bourgeois theatres and the busting energy of South Bronx dancehalls, curator and host Jonzi D has found a beautiful niche.

But what of hip hop being ‘produced’ at a venue like Sadler’s Wells? What of a movement that was once so raw, rooted in the street, moving into the realms of ‘high art’?

“Breakin’ Convention  is an extension of hip hop” Jonzi tells me. “It keeps the real hip hop dynamics: graffiti, ciphers, circles, breaking… We’ve gone to the art and culture of the form, not the swagger side. We’re going deeper than the cosmetic side.”

Jonzi is one of those people you instantly warm to. We’d first met by chance at a house party in Kampala, Uganda, and then coincidentally again at Entebbe airport before sharing a flight back to the UK.

Now we talk at the Sadler’s Wells cafe. Beneath a huge bulbous hat filled with dreadlocks is a rounded, thoughtful face. Jonzi likes to enunciate words that are important, stretching them out and emphasising their syllables. He is clear and convincing. Yet still I question the philosophy of putting hip hop into theatres.

“You see, when I started getting into it, in the 1980s, hip hop was about doing something different” he says, drawing out the word, “Rappers didn’t do the same tracks. You’d be called a biter, someone copying from someone else. For me, bringing hip hop into the dance and theatre scenes was doing something different.”

Jonzi’s story goes right back to the origins of underground British hip hop, b-boying and MCing with the UK’s first wave from 1982. Increasingly drawn to breaking, he graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School in 1993 and set up his first Hip Hop Theatre in 1995.

“I was bringing together two polarised entities in my life” he says. “I thought I was the only person in the world doing it. I felt like I was a bit of a hip hop missionary.”

Jonzi began touring a production called Lyrikal Fearta around Europe that year and realised that others were also onto this hip hop dance combination; it was a genre unto itself.

In 1999 Alistair Spalding, then working at the Royal Festival Hall, saw Jonzi’s production of Aeroplane Man, about a displaced young man of Grenadian origin living in east London. Spalding recognised the significance of Jonzi’s work and five years later, as artistic director at Sadler’s Wells, he commissioned Jonzi to develop a hip hop dance festival. Breakin’ Convention was born.

They hit it off immediately. Spalding gave Jonzi free license to fully capture the essence of hip hop culture, revolving around its four elements: MCing, DJing, breaking, and graffiti.

“When Alistair Spalding supported our guys spraying graffiti on the walls of the mezzanine at Sadler’s Wells, I thought… this will work! The rest is history. We’ve been here every year. We’ve had three national tours. We’ve received money from the Arts Council. We’ve worked with the greatest breakdancers in the world: The Electric Boogaloos, Ken Swift, Mr Wiggles… We’ve become the pioneers of this culture.”

In this eighth successive year at Sadler’s Wells, Breakin’ Convention promises to capture the truly global nature of hip hop, with dancers representing France, Korea, Japan, the UK, US and Uganda.

“Chuck D pointed out that hip hop is developing faster outside the US today. We live in a global world now, with the internet and so on. Hip hop represents the culture of the world…”

One of the highlights of the programme is Ugandan crew, Tabu-Flo, the first time a group from sub-Saharan Africa have been involved in Breakin Convention. The group met at Kampala’s Breakdance Project, a non-profit organisation working to promote social change.  In a country where hip hop culture is phenomenally popular, it’s a direct way to connect with young people.

The piece Tabu-Flo created for their London show is inspired by the story of a battle with malevolent spirits. “Tabu-Flo are working with a local myth called the night dancers: that humans go into trances at night; they possess people; they dig up freshly buried bodies at night and eat them… it’s extraordinary”, explains  Jonzi.

Jonzi’s passion for Africa is obvious. “Africa is the cradle of so many artistic forms. To go near to central Africa, near to the Nile, and find an idea that relates to our concept is too exciting!”

Under the creative control of Jonzi, and amid the dynamics of global hip hop and diverse ethnic cultures, the possibilities are endless. The impetus is to keep exploring; to do something different. So far, Breakin’ Convention  is living up to its name.

Mondomix

Tiken Jah Fakoly: Political War

This was a concert with an edge. Circumstances conspired to lift this performance from one of beautifully arranged and composed music onto another level; here crowd and artist shared not only in each others’ sounds, but in their souls too.

Arguably Ivory Coast’s most political contemporary musician was performing his most politically conscious album, at a time when his country had sunk into a civil war that has cost some 1500 lives.

“Nobody hoped the situation would reach this stage. Il faut cedez le fauteuil, le pouvoir  [literally, you must hand over the ‘presidential armchair’, power]” Tiken Jah Fakoly tells me, in reference to Ivory Coast’s former president, Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the election to Alassane Ouattara but refused to cede control. At the time of this interview, Gbagbo was desperately clinging to power whilst hiding in a bunker under his house in Abidjan.

That night, 4 April 2011, the Barbican theatre was almost entirely on its feet, swaying to reggae melodies layered with distinctly West African sounds drawn from the charms of the kora, ngoni, and balafon (all recently added to his band). An Ivorian fan from the crowd, draped in his national flag, ran across the theatre and up onto the stage, handing Tiken the emblem in a purely symbolic gesture.

“The European Union, the United States, the African Union – they all demanded Gbagbo leave, and he refused. In history, sometimes force is the only way. Negotiating didn’t work. Sadly we arrived at this situation” laments Tiken, whose rusty voice in itself seems to carry the pain of a nation’s suffering.

tiken

One could be forgiven for believing Tiken Jah Fakoly had been building his entire career up to this moment. African Revolution was released in late 2010. Perhaps the album’s most memorable song is Political War, featuring Nigerian soul singer Asa, who performed alongside Tiken at the Barbican. It’s a plaintive story of political disillusion based on their parents’ experiences in Ivory Coast and Nigeria. Their eponymous chorus rings in the ears like the wailing of the bereaved. Tiken was performing for the first time in London just as the violence in Ivory Coast had intensified into one of the world’s worsening humanitarian crises. This was a concert that mattered.

But in fact, lyrically, Tiken’s music has been politically conscious for some time. From 1993 he began to move away from the metaphor traditionally adopted by griot musicians, which is his heritage, into more direct political attacks after the death of Ivory Coast’s long-standing president Félix Houphouey-Boigny.

“I think if the politicians had listened to me years ago, things would not have turned out this way. In Le Caméléon (first released across West Africa in 2000, then internationally in 2008), I made it clear to people in West Africa that things were bad, that they had to stop, and I wasn’t alone – Alpha Blondy and Ismaël Isaac were also saying politicians needed to be checked.

This approach has both increased his regional and international popularity and risked him his life. Subjected to death threats, he left Abidjan in 2003. He was then banned from Senegal after criticizing its president in 2007 and over the past few years exiled himself in Bamako, Mali, due to the political instability blighting the Ivory Coast.

In the complex world of international politics and advocacy in which Tiken now operates, which would be the one change he would like to see in African politics.

“The struggle against corruption in Africa. With corruption, development is difficult. The wealth of natural resources cannot go to the people. Politicians need to stop talking about ending corruption and put together effective laws and acts that will prevent it from happening.”

What of the role of the external actors, the western donors?

“I don’t think the international community needs to help us. We are not children. We are sovereign. We can take our own route.”

If any artist could embody this route, it would be Tiken Jah Fakoly. Musically, African Revolution is a conscious statement. It encompasses his early adoption of roots reggae, particularly Bob Marley’s, and indeed was partly recorded at Tuff Gong studio in Kingston. But the bulk of the album was produced and recorded in Bamako, under the instrumental influence of West Africa, his homeland. Ideologically, he’s clasped the torch of Peter Tosh, Marley and Ivorian reggae musicians to become a ‘truth teller’, speaking up against injustice. And for sheer on-stage bravura – with statuesque Black Panther salutes, cross-stage sprints, jumps, and flying kicks to drum beats – I saw him as African reggae’s answer to Mick Jagger.

“The role of the reggae musician is very important” he says. “The role is to wake up our children. Music can make people understand what is happening, when politicians say one thing and something else is happening.”

Tiken has developed an enormous following in West Africa. His 2003 Victoires de la Musique Award is a testament to his popularity in France. The growing fanbase across the world support him not just for his wonderful music but for his courage.  At the time of writing, his country’s erstwhile despot has reportedly fallen and the curfew has been lifted. Perhaps a new chapter is opening for Ivory Coast. Everyone is hoping it won’t be one of violence. Come what may, Tiken’s voice will continue to sound, loud and clear.

Rokia Traore

Rokia Traoré looks poised. The Malian songstress sits thoughtfully at the edge of her seat. She considers my questions backstage at the Maison des Arts in Paris. In a few hours she will be performing her rich, soulful music to another rapt audience. Traoré has amassed a sizeable following since breaking onto the scene over ten years ago with her first album, Mouneïssa, released in 1998. 40,000 copies were sold in Europe. Traoré became an African music sensation. But one senses that fame means little to her.  “I could never do anything commercial” she says. “I don’t think like that. I just do what I feel.”

Traoré is complex, intelligent and sensitive. She ‘feels’ a lot in her speech. She tells me “sometimes I react more to peoples’ way of behaving than what they say. I’m very sensitive to people”. Her experience as a diplomat’s daughter, growing up in Nigeria, Belgium, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, gave her the time and experiences conducive to seek avenues for creative expression. “I started by writing. Travelling a lot, I had lots of time and began using music as a way of expressing myself,” she pauses, “it was a kind of therapy. There’s a paradox, as singing is both selfish and generous.”

Traoré grew up listening to the music of legendary Guinean griot Sory Kandia Kouyate and British group Dire Straits. Traditional West African and guitar-based western music were already becoming broad sources of musical inspiration.  But ironically it was rap that made Traoré’s name in Mali. Influenced by the likes of Public Enemy and Snap! Traoré and her brothers formed a hip hop collective called “Let’s fight”. Two of their songs were aired on national TV.

Following her mother’s advice, however, Rokia returned to her roots. By 1997 she was collaborating with Ali Farka Touré, who would become a major figure in her life, and over the next six years Traoré produced three critically acclaimed albums. The latest, Tchamantché, won her the best artist award of the 2009 Songlines Music Awards. The album is an intriguing collection of music, sensuously combining bluesy Gretsch guitar licks with West African ngoni plucks to produce a distinct sound, softened by jazz drum patter and Traoré’s feminine voice that can somehow sound forceful yet fragile.

Traoré sings mostly in Bambara, yet the album includes songs in French and English. Her dazzlingly original version of Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ reflects her willingness to invert existing standards. This same characteristic saw Traoré construe Mozart as a thirteenth century griot of the Mande Empire for director Peter Sellars at the New Crowned Hope festival in 2006. Held in London and Vienna, the festival was celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Austrian composer. Traoré’s artistry clearly doesn’t shirk from the big occasion.

Her continuing desire to experiment sees her touring the UK in April and May with Sweet Billy Pilgrim, the Mercury Prize-nominated British trio likened to Radiohead for their wistful art-pop pieces. They and Traoré performed beautifully together at the Barbican last year, and the upcoming shows promise to be especially intriguing. “I’m very happy and excited about the idea. I love collaborations, especially with people with a music background so different from mine as it means I will learn.”

As we near the end of our interview, I understand that Rokia keenly wants others less fortunate to have the chance to learn too. Since December 2009 Traoré has invested her energies in Passerelle, (meaning ‘bridge’ in French) her foundation which aims to help develop Mali’s music industry by providing artists with greater opportunities to play. She has the advantage of her childhood upbringing, giving her know-how when it comes to forging third sector partnerships. The Fondation Passerelle’s first live event will take place on the Niger riverside by Mali’s capital in mid-May. If she can achieve a fraction of her success as a singer songwriter in this endeavour then Bamako’s young hopefuls should be counting themselves very lucky.

Mondomix

Seun Kuti: The Beat Goes On

“Music can do anything” says Seun Kuti. His eyes flash with a youthful energy, dominating a round face with grizzly scrubs of facial hair.

Seun Kuti

“Look back at history” he says, “art in general. Governments have always tried to buy artists. Art inspires you. If I was to become really big and win like two or three Grammys, the government would become afraid of me. I wouldn’t be a billionaire; I wouldn’t have an army, but people would listen to me. Art has power.”

Few African artists would understand this better than Seun Kuti. Born into a Yoruba family of unusual cultural and political engagement (writer and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka is a relation), the Nigerian 28 year-old’s fate is unique. He’s the youngest son of the legendary founder of Afrobeat music, Fela Kuti, whose reputation as political rebel is virtually without equal in the history of modern African music.

Fela Kuti’s 1977 album Zombie was a scathing attack on the complicity and brutality of Nigerian soldiers working under the country’s military ruler General Olesegun Obasanjo. The release and popularity of the record caused such controversy that Fela’s commune and recording studio, the Kalakuta Republic, was attacked and burned by a thousand soldiers, with several killings and Fela suffering torture.

After his death from AIDS in 1997, more than a million people attended Fela Kuti’s funeral at the site of the Shrine, his old nightclub, which had also been destroyed by the military in the late 1970s. While Afrobeat was a tremendously exciting genre musically, this kind of following came from the way Fela Kuti spoke to, and for, the masses. Fela’s appeal was extraordinary because he voiced the biggest political and social problems that no-one had previously even dared to do, let alone so directly, publicly and emphatically.

Seun Kuti is clearly a proud son. “I’m lucky to come from my father’s sperm, my father’s jingo”; I look up from my notepad and his eyes glint with a mischief that streaks through his conversation. “My father’s ideology was to confront tyranny” he says. “He didn’t believe in using arms, but he did believe in standing your ground.”

Seun is standing his ground across the treacherous political landscapes that blight so many African countries. To him the perfidious role of the ‘international community’ is as aggravating as the corruption that mars national development on the continent.

“Laurent Gbagbo is a tyrant. He needs to go. But Laurent Gbagbo is a product of policy in Africa. He was a government puppet placed there to support the interests of European and US multinationals. He forgot that he should be serving the people. Shell provided boats with which our own people could kill each other.”

“They are all dancing in Africa to tunes being played in the West” he concludes forcefully.

On Obama, he says, “I was a fan. Not now. An African man ordering bomb strikes on African soil? He should be ashamed of himself. Protecting Bengazi from a massacre…” he wrinkles up his face, “Come on, why didn’t they protect Nigerians when our leaders were killing their people? We suffered two genocides…”

Would he choose a career in politics? “I’m already a politician. Not a professional politician. I’d like to create a group of authentic African politicians [reviving Fela’s Movement of the People party has been cited as an idea]. I love my role as a critic” he says.

But isn’t the real challenge in making tough political decisions?  “If you have political responsibility for a long time, you get tunnel vision” he responds, adding, “a leader is only as good as his advisers.” His conversation is compelling; insightful, provocative and humorous.

Seun has recognised that he can be more than his father’s son. Since becoming the lead singer of Fela’s old Egypt 80 band at the age of 14 in 1997, he’s embraced his heritage but adapted himself both musically and politically to our times.

His latest album, From Africa With Fury: Rise with Egypt 80, still includes many of the old musicians, and still channels jazz, funk and high-life-inspired Afrobeat music, but has been produced in London with Brian Eno, a production legend in his own right and pioneer of Ambient music. And whereas Fela would mostly rile against military dictatorship, today Seun is attacking multinationals like Monsanto and Halliburton.

Seun’s political diatribe is offset by a lighter exuberance to his personality. Clearly an entertainer in the mold of his father, Seun has a habit of performing half naked on stage with just a sax slung over his neck. We talk about hip hop production in Africa and he feels disappointed by “people promoting bubblegum hip hop” and sneers at “David Guetta on the beats!” adding “but I love it when I’m in a club and I’m drunk, [laughing]”.

If anything, being Fela’s son and part of such a family seems to have taught Seun that he can be anything he wants, and simultaneously be all these different things. Like his father, Seun, I sense, will make people laugh, cry, love and rage all at the same time. Which of course makes him a fascinating and powerful individual, and one well worth listening to.

Mondomix

Oumou Sangare – The Malian Songbird Returns

In the galaxy of West African music, Oumou Sangare really is one of the brightest stars. She was a star in Mali before Nick Gold went to Bamako in 1991. When the World Circuit label founder visited that year, he said he heard the same beautiful voice being played out on cassettes at markets, in cafés, shop stalls, bus stations. All over the city, Oumou Sangare was in the air. “You couldn’t escape that music. And you didn’t want to. It was everywhere. As soon as you left a café where they were playing it, the baton was taken up by a passing car and then the next market stall. I spent that week in Bamako hearing Oumou wherever I went. And I mean everywhere” he says. She was 22. After signing to Gold’s label, Sangare’s debut Moussoulou (‘Women’) became an international phenomenon and, along with Salif Keita and Ali Farka Touré, she was an early global ambassador for music from Mali, a country that has more recently given us Amadou & Mariam and Bassekou Kouyaté.

Sangare is gifted with a voice that can ululate like birdsong yet carries with it enormous emotional depth. Her upbringing was anything but easy. With an absent father, and a mother who often had to leave the household when Sangare was a girl, she grew up fast. “I was the mother, I was the father, at the age of 13 I was already head of the family. And that’s what has given me strength in my life. I learnt very early how to be responsible.” At this early age Sangare learnt how to be tenacious, and how to make money. And her greatest resource was her voice. “I’d wait until I heard a djembe…I would throw myself in the middle of the crowd and sing. When I opened my mouth…wow! People would give me coins.” This combination of talent and determination eventually brought Sangare enormous success.

“Since I’d been absent for a while, my intention was to produce something joyful”, she says, then adds, “but in amongst that joy I always take the opportunity to slip in messages that educate my nation and my country.” Part of Sangare’s huge appeal is her ability to simultaneously communicate both traditional and modern themes within her songs. Seya is rich with reference to her family’s Wassoulou culture. Donso is a song about the hunter-warrior caste who used to protect towns in pre-colonial days. Other songs reflect Sangare’s more modern ideas, albeit set in time-honoured themes. Sounsoumba (‘Big tree’) concerns a girl who before marrying was a Sounsoum Ba, a big tree, vibrant and alive, whose many branches signify her many friendships, but once forced into marriage she becomes a lonely, little tree stump.

Sangare’s outspoken campaigns for women’s rights have made her a powerful, if at times controversial, figure in Africa. She is an Ambassador of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as well as other organizations that look for role models who speak out against gender inequality on the continent. “In Mali I became famous for the message contained in my music – the rights of women, the rights of children too.” While there is often a social and political significance to her songs, Sangare’s popularity comes above all from the sheer quality of her music; the rhythms, the melodies, the instrumentation and of course, her extraordinary, deeply moving voice.

Mondomix

Oliver Mtukudzi – African Soul Rebel

“Music is life. Music gives hope to people. Without people there is no music”. Oliver Mtukudzi’s logic is clear and economical. They are the words of a musician whose career has been inexorably linked with Zimbabwe’s tumultuous history.

Yet from his 1975 debut single, Stop After Orange to today’s performances, he has tried to emphasize the intrinsic quality of music as its own entity, as something above politics. When I ask him about music’s function as a political tool, he replies,

“I wouldn’t understand the word ‘politics’ itself. In my culture music gives information, it gives hope, it gives life to the people. That is the reason for a song.”

In the context of Zimbabwe’s independence and postcolonial struggles, ‘information’ may inevitably be political, but Oliver’s message has always been rooted in social issues – the people come first. Dzandimonotera was Mtukudzi’s first big hit, produced in 1977 with Thomas Mapfumo and the Wagon Wheels Band. The song depicted the black population’s struggle under the oppressive white minority regime. It established Mtukudzi as a singer with substance.

Oliver_show

In 1979 Mtukudzi went solo and formed his own band, The Black Spirits. A group of stylish, young ghetto boys, they fast became icons. And today, some 56 albums later, Mtukudzi remains a major figure in African music. Inspired by Zimbabwean traditional chimurenga, JIT music and South African mbaqanga, the Black Spirits produce liquid, guitar-based melodies that gravitate around Mtukudzi’s weighty voice and lyrics.

I ask him what makes him happy in life. The answers are as abrupt as my question.

“To be alive the next day” he states. I wait for him to continue. He does, after a long pause. “Just living”, he adds. “Having life”, he concludes. The simplicity of his response has the desired effect. I think of Zimbabwe, and its long troubles.

Right now Oliver Mtukudzi is touring the UK with fellow African Soul Rebels Senegalese legend Baaba Maal, and Obama favourites Extra Golden. “The idea of this tour is great. It shows how versatile African music is. We are traveling as three different groups, totally unique, but still as Africans.” Mtukudzi describes Baaba Maal as ‘a true African’, adding “there’s no doubt in his music.” Clearly, he relishes playing on a pan-African bill. “We click in our music. As Africans, we share the same sentiments. We are one and the same people.”

One thing is certain, listening to Mtukudzi is an educational experience. Throughout his career he has used the richness of the Shona language and his super-melodic music to carry metaphors and ideas that have provided Zimbabweans with a sense of identity and self-belief. Gracing the front cover of Time magazine a few years back, he was described as the ‘Voice of the Voiceless’.

Mondomix

Tunng with Tinariwen – Soho meets the Sahara

The BBC Radio 3 ‘Late Junction’ session was a grand experiment. Saharan desert blues legends Tinariwen shared the Maida Vale studio with Soho-based folktronica group Tunng to record three songs for broadcast in February 2009. The results were dazzling.

“We sat down together in a circle”, explains Mike Lindsay from Tunng.“The third tune we made kind of came out of jamming that led into an eight minute trance. Someone pressed play and then eventually stop on the recorder. It was a real ‘wow’ moment.”

“Then someone had an idea to go further and actually organize a tour together”, says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni from Tinariwen, “We were keen on the idea, because as musicians, it’s very important to interact with and learn from other musicians.”

I ask them how their different sounds complement each other.

Abdallah: “It’s clear that their music is very different from ours, but it’s very open too. It’s the kind of music that invites other musicians and other sounds to join in.”

Mike: “The recordings together were very fresh, almost a new music entirely. In some instances we’ll need to be careful not to go overboard on certain electronics.” Mike is sensitive to the cultural and musical differences between the groups. Tinariwen’s distinctive desert blues, whose fans include Thom Yorke and Bono, is charged with powerful electric guitar chords and singing that carries the full weight of their message. Their music encompasses their mission: to raise awareness for desert peoples living in political and economic isolation in the southern Sahara. You can easily imagine their songs resonating across vast desert plains.

Tunng, on the other hand, fuse delicate electronic touches with contemporary folky sounds. Hearing the melodies that underscore their songs, it comes as no surprise to learn that Tunng member Sam Genders is a big Beatles fan. Both bands’ originality stems from the collective groups of individuals producing their music. I ask them how their environment has inspired them as artists and what currently influences them.

Abdallah: “Everything we sing, every word we say, everything we think and do has been shaped by the Sahara. The Sahara is our home, our cradle, our teacher and our inspiration. Until most of us were adults, we didn’t know anything except the Sahara.”

Mike: “Being in London hasn’t really influenced our music. Perhaps subconsciously the city has influenced the urban electronic work me and Phil (Winter) come up with. Other influences; dodgy ‘80s powerpop, Journey, Electric Light Orchestra. And I’m not really joking! We listen to all sorts. Moondog recently. All sorts of Latin percussion. Deerhoof.”

The ensemble, which features three members of Tinariwen, have spent some intense time together preparing their set before the tour kicks off. Their music encompasses “entirely different subject matters” says Mike.

Abdallah admits, “I can’t claim that I really understood Tunng’s music before”. Will the universal language of music transcend these enormous differences? On their own, both these bands have had an extraordinary impact crossing genres and reaching new audiences. This collaborative effort promises to be inspiring.

Mondomix