Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s face is etched with the desert sun. A former member of Mali’s Tuareg rebel movement, the MPA, he has spent his life in the arid southern Sahara. With his band, Tinariwen, formed 30 years ago in a Kaddafi-sponsored rebel training camp in Libya, he still roams the desert, with a Fender Stratocaster on his shoulder where a Kalashnikov once hung. He describes his band’s style as “assouf,” which means loneliness, longing—the darkness beyond the campfire.
Today, Alhabib is getting ready to play the Big Chill festival in the bucolic British countryside. “I like the security here, but I miss desert life,” he says. Tinariwen’s haunting desert blues has won a huge following in Europe, where the band’s concerts are regularly sold out. No wonder producers and festival organizers are busy scouting the world’s conflict-torn regions for similarly powerful acts. These Simon Cowells of the world-music scene are cultivating new genres that combine the traditional sounds of protest music with modern instruments and globalized publicity machines.
This year’s WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festival in the English county of Wiltshire was packed with performances fired by the experience of exile. One act, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, formed in a makeshift camp in Guinea during Sierra Leone’s civil war. Onstage, the troupe sings about life on the run from the rebel militia, fusing reggae with lilting pop guitar and traditional African drumming. “We started singing to distract ourselves from the horror we had seen and to entertain our neighbors in the camp,” says founding member Reuben Koroma, who fled his home in Freetown in the late 1990s. “Things have changed a lot since those dark days.”
Displaced musicians from African nations like Ethiopia and Republic of the Congo—as well as Syria, Iraq, and Iran—are forging powerful new genres. Bands like the Ethiopian group Geata Krar Collective, who won standing ovations at the WOMAD festival, speak to their diaspora communities. “I know that there are many, many Ethiopian musicians who are [in London] on political asylum,” says Lucy Duran, a lecturer in ethnomusicology at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and a presenter for the BBC’s World Routes program. “In exile they can say the things that they’re not allowed to say at home.”
Another rising star of the WOMAD festival was the Congolese group Staff Benda Bilili, paraplegics who live on the grounds of Kinshasa’s run-down zoo. From metal wheelchairs, the group sings rumba-based songs about life on the streets. One lyric instructs mothers to inoculate their infants against polio—the disease that disabled the band members. Another song simply urges “Go and vote.”
Other producers have crafted their own collectives. The London-based musician and producer Nick Page traveled to Addis Ababa and put together the collective Dub Colossus, merging traditional Azmari folk, reggae, and contemporary Amharic pop. Page’s latest project is more overtly political: Syriana is made up of a Palestinian violist, an Irish guitarist, and an Algerian exile who plays electric violin and mandol. “The project is very much to do with our shared experience of the Cold War,” says Page. “It’s about saying, ‘Don’t divide people again.’?”
Onstage, Page’s Middle Eastern soundscape is juxtaposed with film projections. In one image, a flock of birds flies into a clear Damascene sky and turns into jet planes. The overall message is unity, though some artists were unable to make it out of the country. “Moving musicians around the world is becoming harder and harder,” says Page. “Our Syrian band, the Pan Arab Strings, told us they would love to come and work with us, but there are just too many problems with travel.”
Some musicians stay in their homelands despite the risks. Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat stills lives in Tehran, where her music is forbidden by the regime. Her mystical ballads are produced by the Norwegian Erik Hillestad, and, though not overtly political, tunes like the popular “I Am Eve” have riled authorities. “I can’t say I am not afraid,” she says, on the phone from a music festival in Norway. “Life in Iran is hard for everyone, especially artists. Solo women singers are banned by the regime. But despite all this, I think Iran is the best place for me and my art.”
Many musicians who hail from despotic states wouldn’t dare set foot in their homelands—with good reason. Turkish singer Ferhat Tunc has been arrested several times and is currently facing 15 years in jail for spreading propaganda. In Cameroon, the popular singer Lapiro de Mbanga still languishes in prison after his satirical song criticizing the president angered authorities in 2008. “Music is a risky business,” says Duran. “There is so much censorship—even protest through metaphor is dangerous for musicians.”
But it can also shape culture. On the main stage at WOMAD last month, Prince Harry was dancing to the Mongolian throat-singing rock band, Hanggai, whose lyrics speak of the trials of nomadic life (though the musicians hail from downtown Beijing). The audience went wild over the uncanny ballads—proof that the fusion of traditional sounds, social protest, and modern sensibilities can still provoke and inspire.