Many narratives intersect to form the story of the country

A few minutes past midnight on New Year’s Eve, Ahmed Ag Kaedi strummed his guitar on a makeshift stage at the Tumast Tuareg Cultural Centre in Bamako, murmuring quiet songs into the microphone as the crowd danced with forced gaiety.

The mood was nostalgic and never more so than when he sang of the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, and of the vast northern desert of Mali — home to many of the guests at this party before being taken over by Islamist militants almost a year ago.

Mr. Ag Kaedi was touring with a band in Niger when the Islamists arrived in Kidal in the summer of 2012. He returned to find his house vandalised, his instruments burnt and a warning that if he ever played his guitar in Kidal, his fingers would be cut off.

He has been on the road ever since, one of hundreds of thousands of Malians displaced by the violence, playing at concerts, staying with relatives and occasionally appearing for evenings such as this when everyone prays for a ‘Happy New Year’, and hopes that next year, the party will be in Timbuktu, in Gao, in Kidal.

Complex history

Twelve months of fighting could lie between this new-year party and the next. A week into February, French and African soldiers have already won back key northern towns, including the three mentioned in Mr. Ag Kaedi’s songs, but much of the conflict remains obscured by the triumphant march of security forces; the restrictions placed on journalists by Malian authorities; the difficulties in making contact with the rebel forces; and the impossibility of grasping, let alone competently conveying, the complex history of a land of many destinies.

Stories of Mali are wrought from the intersecting tales of West Africa, France, the great Sahel scrublands and the Sahara’s shifting sands, Colonel Qadhafi and President Francois Hollande, The Rolling Stones and Ali Farka Toure.

The guitarist plucks at the strings of his instrument, each chord resonating with past struggles, present discord and unlikely alliances.

Of the many radical influences that awaited an idealistic young Tuareg in the Libyan military camps of the mid-1990s, Ahmed Ag Kaedi came away seduced by Dire Straits. A mixed cassette of their greatest hits found its way to his dormitory: having tracks from “Money for Nothing” to “Brothers in Arms”.

It was 1994. Back home in Mali, Moussa Traore’s military regime had crumbled and the second Tuareg rebellion was under way. The first Tuareg rebellion for an independent homeland called Azawad broke out in 1963-64, after the northern territories were assigned to the newly created state of Mali in 1960.

The demand for Azawad revived a historical dispute between the Tuaregs, who thought themselves light-skinned and superior; and the black ethnicities that saw themselves as long-suffering victims of Tuareg oppression.

“Azawad is Temashek [Tuareg] for shallow bowl, or a shallow depression in the desert between the sand dunes,” said a Tuareg from the Kel Ansari, explaining that word had connotations of safety for his nomadic people.

Yet the sedentary agriculturalists translate it differently. “Azawad is a place in the desert where the Tuaregs take their herds during the planting and harvesting seasons,” said a Bambara farmer from Djenne. “Otherwise their cattle would ruin the crop.”

For Mr. Ag Kaedi, Azawad was an idea that a young displaced man could get behind.

“It was the beginning of the [1990s] rebellion and it was very difficult for our people to stay in Mali,” Mr. Ag Kaedi said, speaking of the ethnic violence at the time, “I went first to Algeria as a refugee; there I met some friends and we decided to go to Libya and become soldiers.”

The path from Mali to Libya was a well-trodden one — the Tuaregs had been travelling to Libya since the pan-Sahel drought of the 1970s. “Our country had a complicated relationship with Qadhafi,” said a senior government journalist in Bamako.

In Mali, Libya’s former dictator built hotels, the sprawling administrative complex in Bamako, and even a luxurious house in Timbuktu that was subsequently taken over by the Islamist militants. He also offered the Tuaregs safe haven and military training, incorporated them into his Islamic Legion, and deployed them in wars in Sudan, Chad and Lebanon. When Qadhafi’s regime crumbled in 2011, many Tuareg fighters returned to Mali and sparked off the third rebellion.

Back in 1994, Mr. Ag Kaedi and his friends took a bus to the Algerian city of Djanet, and then crossed the Libyan frontier on foot, sleeping by day and walking for three straight nights until they arrived at a camp in Ghat, Libya. “Back then I trusted in the rebellion, I believed in the revolution,” Mr. Ag Kaedi said, “I trained for eleven months, but then Qadhafi said there is a peace agreement between Mali and the Tuaregs now, there is no further need to train.”

From gun to guitar

With no war to fight, Mr. Ag Kaedi decided to become a musician. Homesick and adrift, he fell in with an émigré Tuareg band and picked up the electric guitar, a much-storied instrument in Northern Mali.

In the late sixties, legendary Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards found his talents stagnating, until he retuned his guitar to more unorthodox arrangement — five-string open tuning rather than the standard six-string tuning.

With this new arrangement, Mr. Richards chanced upon a whole new sound that formed the basis of some of the Stones’ greatest hits like “Start Me Up” and “Honky Tonk Women”.

“The five-string took me back to tribesmen of West Africa,” Mr. Richards wrote in his autobiography Life.

“They had a very similar instrument, sort of a five-string, like a kind of banjo,” and that is the sound, Mr. Ag Kaedi said, that rang out across Tuareg settlements in the north. Mr. Richards also credits Ry Cooder as an early influence.

Around the time that Mr. Ag Kaedi was training in Libya, Mr. Cooder collaborated with Ali Farka Toure, one of Mali’s greatest musicians, to produce “Talking Timbuktu” — a Grammy-winning album of impossibly beautiful music.

When the Islamists sidelined the Tuaregs and took control of northern Mali last year, they banned all music, robbing the people of a central pillar of identity.

“The Islamists are not Tuaregs, they come from many different countries and their aims are not the same as the Tuaregs,” Mr. Ag Kaedi said, “I don’t know what the Islamists want, I know what they don’t want: they want music and musicians, they don’t want feasts and fun. What they want seems very dark.”

One evening in January, Mr. Ag Kaedi nervously smoked cigarettes as he stood outside a recording studio in Bamako, “The people inside are very big deals. Very, very famous.”

Music for peace

Inside, some of Mali’s biggest contemporary artists had gathered to record a song for peace and unity. Ali Farka Toure’s son Vieux Farka Toure and Habib Koite of the band Bamada tuned their guitars as Fatoumata Diawara, a Paris-based Malian singer, conferred with the sound engineer.

“Today Mali needs us,” said Fatoumata Diawara “Tuaregs are also victims of this very sad situation. We have many different types of people and this song is a message to the world to say we all together — people from the north and south are all Malian.”

The song is a seven-minute tribute to the country’s diverse musical heritage, visually reminiscent of “We are the World”, the 1985 charity single written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.

Mr. Ag Kaedi lurked on the sidelines, practicing his bit of the chorus. I asked him what he thought was the solution to the current impasse. He shared a Tuareg proverb, “When you meet a man in the desert and ask him what he wants, the answer is always ‘water’, ‘water’, ‘water’. Right now, we need peace, peace, peace.”