Between Time and Timbuktu: Reflections on Globalization and the Electric Touareg

It was many years later that I was to remember that day in Seattle. How I had ended up where I was, standing next to who I was, was beyond me. But, there I was — I was at the “top of the WAC” – the Washington Athletic Club — staring out the windows at what seemed to me at the time to be a giant abstract tableau. It was the end of November 1999 and I was looking at Seattle, laid out like a giant game of “Go.” The WTO was about to go into full swing — in what was to be known as the “battle for Seattle.”

From those windows high atop the WAC, I could see the various pieces on the board, see the planned movements and strategies as the police set up barricades and as people in the streets ebbed and flowed in response. It was easy to imagine reaching down and flipping a white stone to black, and thus changing the game. The game of “Go” is that way — the placement of single piece — a single move — can change the outcome of the game.

Seattle holds many fond memories for me, but that day bordered on the surreal. That day, beside me were some of the major pieces in the game, including James Wolfensohn. All in all, in the room were more than a dozen representatives of Globalization, with a capital Gee. I felt like Zelig. I kept thinking to myself that, properly, I should be down in the streets, relishing the scent of teargas in the morning. We were talking about the synergies of philanthropy, technology, and collaboration; I was imagining teargas.

These are the thoughts that swirled about my head as I watched five rather amazing musicians take a stage last week in San Francisco. I was at a concert. In fact it was a week bookended by music. Tonight was Tinariwen. Yo-Yo Ma was next Saturday. In between, philanthropy, technology and collaboration; some themes don’t change it seems.

These five fellows, in flowing Boubou robes, covered head to foot, with turbans wrapped about their heads, were playing Fender electric guitars (now there’s a truly global export) singing a rap song with a distinct West African beat, in a mix of French and Arabic. As the klieg lights shone down on these troubadours, only their eyes showing, guitars flashing, I was struck by the true amazing fact that it was globalization that had put them there; it was globalization that put me there, as well.

And, there in the row in front of me — globalized — were five young quintessentially Californian women dancing and ululating like they had spent their formative years in the High Atlas rather than Marin County. I was struck by the contrasts, by the sense of living on an interconnected planet. I was struck by the facts of globalization; and once again, things are neither black nor white.

The five fellows were Tinariwen, an almost indescribable musical group of Touareg from the southern Sahara. The Tinariwen story sounds like fiction. Guns and guitars, Ghadaffi’s poet-soldiers, Stratocasters in one hand, and a Kalashnikov in the other; supposedly, together, they count 17 bullet wounds among them. These were the Touareg, the nomadic desert warriors, the blue men of the desert. Their songs are the soundtrack of the ishumar (from chômeur, French for “unemployed”). They are the Sahara’s Generation X; once Malian rebels, now full-time musicians. (They are not a Volkswagen, despite what you may have heard.)

Sample Tracks

Cler Achel”     from Aman Iman (World Village)
Tamatant Te Lay     from Aman Iman (World Village)


On stage they’re an example of globalization beyond imagination, one of its consequences and one of its effects. It seems in music and the arts, where monolithic American culture has not run roughshod; we are experiencing a new renaissance. All hail rock and roll. All hail the magic mix of music that has me rocking to the Touareg one day, and gently enjoying Yo-Yo Ma the next. [This contrast and intersection is all the more poignant given Yo-Yo Ma's involvement with the "Silk Road" project.]

All around me that evening were the signs, the positive and negative effects of globalization. I rode to the concert in a Japanese hybrid and parked next to a fleet of others; I dined on a meal of sweet potato fries, California greens, topped with seared Ahi tuna, dressed with sesame seed oil and Japanese rice wine vinegar. I had a glass of French Viognier. I was wearing French shoes, a pair of jeans “engineered” in Germany (whatever that means) and made in Romania, and a Canadian shirt. And, I listened to the sounds of the desert, the raw tale of the Touareg, played on electric guitars made famous first by 1950′s rock and roll. Sub-Saharan nomads ripped from their lands, made unemployed and made famous by globalization.

I listened to the sounds of the desert, the sounds of a nomadic people displaced by the 21st century, and the sounds of a people who suffer the fate of nomadic peoples all over the world.

From the Tinariwen web site (just that statement is amazing, when you think of it):

“…Forget the myths, forget the ‘guns-and-guitars’ fantasies and tales of blue-men on their camels. The humanity, the wonder and the epic sweep of the real Tinariwen story doesn’t need any photoshopping or romantic embellishments. It is the raw tale of an everyman, who was cut off from history and embraced the modern world, who lost his home and found solace in the guitar, who through pain and exile invented a new style of music that could express who he is and where he’s going. Nothing mythical or exotic about that. You can find the same story the world over…”

At the risk of showing my naiveté, clearly the effects of globalization are not all bad. Some are, in fact, grand. But others are frightening, and I often fear what we will lose, for lose we will, I fear. More so, I fear what the world will lose.

Moreover, I am, in fact, truly embarrassed by our current list of mainstream “cultural” exports. It is in music, culture, and entertainment where the west and the north are the great winners. We get better than we give. We trade the “O’Reilly Factor,” in return we get a richness and depth unplumbed. It’s striking and sad that we add so little of value to the trade, yet nevertheless seem to monopolize the market. Take Geraldo. I’ll gladly trade you Disco, the entire 1980′s, and Geraldo, for the richness of Mbaqanga, the pure energy of Tinariwen, and the sultriness of just about any French piano bar.

In this new world, where content is king, where creativity is the true currency, we seem to be rather impoverished.

Meanwhile, as I drive my Ford-but-really-Swedish car north today, into the Great Lakes winter, Afro-French-Arabic rap blaring out of an IPod (made in China no doubt); my imagination drives south, from Timbuktu to Essakane; perchance to the Festival in the Desert, and I remember: the placement of a single piece can change the whole game.

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