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Extract of “Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali

By Andy Morgan.

Published by Freemuse

Nytorv 17, DK-1450 Copenhagen, Denmark





“Masks are central to the work of the one of the most

extraordinary theatre companies to have come into being in

the years leading up to the great crisis of 2012. Called

Tisrawt, it is remarkable because it was created by local

Touareg actors in Kidal, right up in the heartlands of both

the Touareg rebellion and the recent Islamist occupation.

Tisrawt is the only theatre company that exists in the far

north of Mali.

The genesis of Tisrawt is an epic tale in itself. Its origins go

back to 2005, when a Parisian theatre company called La

Calma specialising in street theatre and education was invited

to Kidal to work with up to 70 local young people and

develop their theatrical skills. The first fruit of their work

was a programme of short masked sketches that were

performed at the Saharan Nights Festival in es-Souk in

January 2006. Es-Souk is a ruined city situated about 60

kilometres north of Kidal at the foot of the Tegharghar

Mountains where, as I write, the French and Chadian armies

are fighting a sustained and brutal battle against the remnants

of the Islamist coalition that occupied Mali for ten months

from April 2012. Guerrilla warfare aside, es-Souk a magical

place and the sight of so many Kidalian youth, all masked,

acting out often hilarious scenarios on subjects as diverse as

education, health, pubic hygiene, insecurity and clandestine

immigration amplified that magic exponentially. Music for

the show was provided by the embryonic Touareg band

Tamikrest, then still a year away from launching their

international career.

After that inaugural project in 2006, the French actress and

director Melissa Wainhouse, a long-standing member of La

Calma, returned regularly to Kidal, despite the growing

threat of kidnapping and always against the advice of the

French foreign ministry. After 2009, the trip could only be

made with an escort of bodyguards. She continued to

develop short sketches with what had now become a solid

core of actors from the Kidal region, both Touareg and


The murder of the British tourist Edwin Dyer by Abou Zeid

and his AQIM militia in June of 2009 impregnated the entire

northern two thirds of Mali with a heightened sense of

danger and paranoia. 2010 was in effect the year that the

region shut down to the outside world. Nonetheless, in

January 2010, Wainhouse and the players from Tisrawt

managed to defy the cowering zeitgeist and perform at the

Camel Festival in Tessalit, a beautiful village in the far north

east of Mali up by the Algerian border. They also travelled to

the Festival in the Desert in Essakane. This was to be

Melissa’s last visit to the Kidal region before the Islamist

occupation of 2012.

Nonetheless, as far as Melissa was concerned, being barred

from Tisrawt’s home region wasn’t reason enough to shelve

the whole project. “The only solution was for the actors

themselves to come to Bamako,” she told me in September

2012. “It isn’t an easy task to transport six people from Kidal

to Bamako, to house them, feed them and create the right

conditions for working.” And it wasn’t just the logistics that

were challenging; it was the novelty of the project itself.

“There are no Touareg actors apart from ours and no

Touareg theatre troupe apart from Tisrawt,” Melissa told me.

“But because we were extremely persistent and desirous of

success, bit by bit, there was a gathering awareness amongst

Touareg leaders and notables of the importance of the work

of these young people and what it meant symbolically, even

if the troupe wasn’t on a professional level yet. It was too

early to talk about professionalism but the very fact that

these young Kidalois were getting involved and setting

themselves the goal of transmitting messages in French and

Tamashek through theatre, messages of peace, was

important enough in itself.”

Whilst the north degenerated into a lawless playground for

mafia business and Salafists with AK47s, Tisrawt tackled

issues such as trafficking, crime and banditry. At the end of

one particular sketch that revolved around these themes, the

players would turn to their audience and declare that it was

up to them, the Touareg, the northerners, to preserve and

value their own culture. It was up to the teenagers and

parents of teenagers in the audience to make sure that

smuggling and crime didn’t destroy society itself. That sketch

was performed at the inauguration of the Biennale Artistique et

Culturelle in Sikasso in 2010, in front of President Amadou

Toumani Touré and a large gathering of dignitaries.

In 2011, Tisrawt received funding from Norwegian Church

Aid (AEN) to prepare a new show that would tour the three

regions of the north; Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. A

programme of writing, rehearsals and workshops was

organised in Bamako, involving professional actors and

technicians from La Calma. The ambition was to take

Tisrawt to a new level of proficiency and give them the

impetus and know-how to carry on developing their art on

their own. Nevertheless, with the tumultuous build up to the

outbreak of hostilities in northern Mali in January 2012, the

tour, which was due to visit schools, cultural centres and

festivals in the north, never happened.

The scuppering of Tisrawt’s first opportunity to do a wellfunded

and well-prepared tour was a severe blow. The group

had been gearing up to tackling the hardest topic of all;

religious extremism. But in the end, with the cancellation of

the tour, the opportunity passed. When I spoke to Melissa in

September 2012, she was getting ready to go back to

Bamako to start a new project with the troupe. Religious

extremism was still on top of the list of potential themes for

the next phase of work. “Will we tackle the subject of

Islamism? Right now I can’t say yes or no. It will really

depend on the members of the troupe. Luckily theatre allows

us to deal with subjects in a symbolic or transposed way, but

having said that, the subject is so sensitive. The most

important thing for me is not to put them in any danger.”

The outbreak of rebellion in January 2012 turned Tisrawt

upside down. “In a profound way it was a complete shock,”

according to Melissa. “Some of the actors took refuge in

Bamako and were living a very precarious situation there.

Some stayed in Kidal, and were probably caught up in the

reality of what was going on. They were sucked into that

spiral. I think that right now [ed. September 2012] the youth

up there in the north have a very stark choice. If they stay

they are forced to ally themselves to one or other of the

various movements. Some just don’t have the means or the

opportunity to leave, because families can’t go with them for

diverse reasons. You have to realise that this youth wasn’t

old enough to have been combatants in the rebellion of the

1990s. They were children at the time, but they have been

soaked in that whole climate, a climate in which taking up

arms has always been a noble act. That is very cultural with

the Tamashek. But what’s incredible is that I’m in touch with

all of them. I’ve managed to gather my troupe together and

all of them tell me that their aim, their only glimmer of hope,

is the work of the company.”

It was the actors themselves who urged Melissa to let them

go and perform in the refugee camps in front of people who

have been driven from their homes by the conflict. “Their

aim is to make them laugh, to bring them hope and given

them a feeling of solidarity and to value their culture, which

is in extreme danger right now.”


So, in an indistinct fog of crisis and instability, Melissa

gathered her players together in Bamako in November 2012

and started work on a new piece called Tisrawt “Le Royaume

d’Idjirane”. It was about a king who considers himself to be a

good king. His motto is “Each man for himself, and

everyone for the king.” Nonetheless, there’s trouble ahead.

Drought descends and the harvests are bad. The royal

council is convened to try and sort out the crisis. One day a

stranger called Albana (‘Misfortune’ in Tamashek) arrives

and announces that a spring called ‘Goulou Goulou’ is

situated right there, under the king’s throne. He sows

calamity and chaos by pitting one person against the other

and manipulating the king. His aim is to make the riches of

the kingdom his own. Tisrawt was a star attraction at the

2012 Festival des Théatre de Réalités in Bamako.


“Tisrawt is a microcosm of Touareg society,” Melissa

explains. “That’s to say, it is a group of people who come

from many different clans. Some are pro-MNLA. Some are

pro Ansar ud-Dine. Some are pro-Mali. Others say that it’s

all nonsense. And the aim is to understand each other, to live

together and work together on a common project.”


The Tisrawt theater group is just a beginning, albeit a

powerful and promising one. The actors are learning their

trade. They’re hacking a new trail. “You know, new Touareg

bands have it much easier because Tinariwen have already

opened up and mapped out the onward path,” Melissa said.

“They’re examples, sentinels, who have reached at least some

of their goals. For my actors that doesn’t exist yet. They

don’t have a culture of the theatre. They don’t have access to

everything that we have access to here in Europe; festivals,

books, films. I have to operate at their rhythm. And I’m

there, their mother, their sister and their teacher. I’m also

their artistic director and I’m determined not to let them

become the instrument of another person or entity, nor of

the chaos the political chaos that the country is in right


Heroism is a loud word. It becomes more dignified in its

quiet, barely visible incarnations. That quiet heroism exists

everywhere, in Mali too, abundant in its obscurity. The quiet

courage and dedication of people like Adama Traore, Melissa

Wainhouse and the actors in Tisrawt and all the many other

small theatre troupes in the country is keeping discourse,

culture, education, entertainment and hope alive.

Theatre, in its simplest incarnations at least, costs relatively

little. That’s why it has power as folk art and as a simple

means of bringing problems out into the open where they

can be discussed, understood and possibly tackled.

In a country like Mali, a country that urgently needs to speak to

itself and make its wiser voice heard over the white noise of

fear and revenge, theatre is no longer a mere cultural

delicacy. It has become essential."