In the Sahara — spread across the countries of Mali, Niger, and Algeria — live a traditionally nomadic tribe known as the Tuareg. Maybe the easiest way to describe them is as desert Gypsies, because like Gypsies (also known as Roma), the Tuareg make fantastic music and suffer incredible discrimination.

“Toumast” is a documentary that focuses on the Tuareg band of the same name led by Moussa Ag Keyna and Aminatou Goumar, which is now based in France and signed to Real World Records. Like their better-known Tuareg-musician brethren Tinariwen, Toumast (which means “Identity”) play what sounds like desert blues, based around dirty electric guitars, male-female vocal interplay, and traditional trance rhythms, but often with the addition of a rock band rhythm section on bass and drums.

As music, it’s powerful enough, but the film reveals the songs’ context, showing the culture of resistance from which they were born. Moussa himself was a guerrilla with an armed independence group until severe wounds took him out of action; the other three members of his original band were all killed in combat.

Toumast (Toumast — Guitar to Kalashnikov no Hazama De)
Director Dominique Margot
Run Time 88 minutes
Language Tuareg, French (Subtitled in Japanese and English)
Opens Feb. 28

It sometimes seems the idea of romantic revolution died along with Che Guevara, but the Tuareg — riding camels or machine-gun mounted pickup trucks as they fight for their survival — would have likely drawn Hemingway and Orwell to their side a few generations ago. “People can’t imagine taking up arms to defend their rights,” says one soft-spoken rebel, “but sometimes you have no choice.”

The nomads suffered mightily from colonialism’s arbitrary divide-and-conquer borders, as their traditional desert lands were split between several countries. Drought and government repression didn’t help. Multinationals such as France’s Areva came in to mine uranium, using much of the groundwater, while polluting the rest, which allowed disease to spread. Sixty percent of Niger’s state budget came from taxing such operations, but the Tuareg saw little coming back to their communities. They eventually turned to armed resistance.

Singer and guitarist Moussa describes growing up as a citizen of Niger: “Every time my older brother went to the market, we were afraid he’d never return.” The Tuareg were known locally as the ishumar, meaning “unemployed,” and treated with contempt. “We were not humans to them,” says Moussa.

In the absence of radio or newspapers, music — circulating on cassettes and CDs — became the voice of the revolution, even as governments made it illegal. Today, as journalists are banned from entering Tuareg areas and government massacres of entire villages continue, bands like Toumast are critical to raising awareness of their people’s plight.

Director Dominique Margot is good at establishing all this background while following Moussa as he illegally reenters his homeland, turning to the desert for inspiration and reconnection. She also gives a much-needed glimpse of the non-Arab, nonfundamentalist Middle East, where women work and sing as equals along the men. Viva la revolucion.

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