The M’berra camp, in south-east Mauritania, houses around 60,000 refugees from across the border in northern Mali, displaced by the continuing political emergency that was sparked by the Azawad rebellion a decade ago. Facilitated by the Italian humanitarian organisation Intersos, the Italian producer Khalab travelled to M’berra to record the many musicians who now live there and to weave the tapes into a collage that he refers to as a “docu-fiction”.
Khalab (Raffaele Costantino) has worked extensively with field recordings and with African musicians, notably Baba Sissoko. His manifesto for the project asserts a set of dualisms that separate Africa and Europe: desert versus enclosed spaces, tradition versus experimentation, past versus future, war versus peace, freedom versus chains — many of them deeply questionable. Much of the music of the Tuaregs, although rooted in tradition and the past, has in fact been deeply innovative, notably the electric genre known simply as “guitar”. Foremost among the Malian musicians in the ensemble are Amano Ag Issa and Mohammed Issa Ag Oumar of Tartit, a group that did not hesitate to push boundaries.
The recordings Khalab made in the camp, in the 48-degree heat of 2017, are stark — unaccompanied singing; dry, smouldering electric guitar riffs; the severe sound of the three-string tehardent. When they burst through the recording, as in the brief fragment “The Griot Speaks” with singing accompanied on the tehardent, there is a clear sense of place and time. The tinde drum and chanting of “We Are M’berra” develops into a narrative built up from interviews with the camp’s residents, and guitar spiralling around in the background. Khalab’s electronics strobe like the blades of a helicopter, deep synthesised basslines dovetailing with the drum rhythms.
An official instructs residents through a distorted megaphone to stay in the shade on “Reste À L’Ombre”, and then guitars and an electronic heat haze shimmer in. But “Desert Storm” and “Desert Storm Pt. 2” (a title with resonances, presumably unintended, of the Gulf war in 1990), are repetitious in a way that loses energy rather than building it. The music can sound claustrophobic, at odds with the usual spaciousness of desert blues: perhaps a reflection of nomadic life confined to a camp.
When the music lands, the album thrills; elsewhere, the distinctly western dance beats (the electronic claps on “Moulan Shakur” are especially grating) can feel less like a collaboration, more like imperial erasure.
‘M’berra’ is released by Real World