There are stories here. There are memories and dreams, keepsakes and wishes. There are truths told straight and fashioned into shapes. There is struggle and resilience. There is humanity. Throughout, there is music.
Music as connection, sustenance, hope, joy. Ancient-to-future music fed by the ancestors and sent spinning through space and time. Music that bestows agency on the displaced and traumatised, opening the door of the cosmos and embracing the self-determination, the liberation, on the other side.
M’berra. A visionary trip by an artist searching for a new language of storytelling.
This is the sound, the story, of the M’berra Ensemble, a collective of Malian musicians from the M’berra Refugee Camp in southeast Mauritania, and Italian producer and electro-shaman Khalab. In a sprawling tent city rising out of the desert, out of nothingness, at the border with Mali in West Africa, brought together by spirit and circumstance, the group’s Arab and Tuareg members — some unknown, some who have previously toured Europe — find solace and beauty in music and song.
Their truths are authentic, and diverse: “There is not only one story to be told here,” says Khalab, who with French photographer Jean-Marc Caimi visited the camp in 2017 at the invitation of Intersos, the largest Italian NGO on the frontline of global emergencies.
“The real stories feature musicians, their music, their names.” Among them, Amano Ag Issa and Mohammed Issa Ag Oumar of Tartit, that much-feted group from the Tombouctou region of northern Mali. Variously recalling their past and reclaiming their present with proud, gritty vocals; wielding electric guitars and traditional instruments — the lute-like tehardent, the single-string imzad — across 12 tracks that tell of resistance and freedom, of desert storms and desert moons.
M’berra. It’s a docu-fiction, informed by rolling sub-Saharan blues and the space-is-the-place magic of Afro-futurism — a genre and philosophy at the intersection of African diaspora culture and technology, whose early iconic figure Sun Ra famously used extraterrestriality as a trope to explore, subvert and empower.
This is the sound, the story, of Khalab [Raffaele Costantino], a producer with a psychedelic perspective and deep love of African music and indeed, Afro-futurism. Already acclaimed for an oeuvre saturated with loops, repetitions, trance and transcendence, for collaborations with the likes of Malian percussionist Baba Sissoko, Khalab is even more lauded today.
His pivotal 2018 album Black Noise 2084 (On the Corner) and subsequent series of mixes and features from artists including celebrated black British reedsman Shabaka Hutchings have made Khalab a name to drop.
Back in 2017, intent on combating compassion fatigue, wanting to re-sensitise the world to the lives lived inside refugee camps, he landed in the 50,000-strong M’berra Camp. In 48°C (119°F) heat, he prepared the ensemble for take-off.
“Khalab’s electronic music seems so distant, so alien!” says Fadimata Walett Oumar (a.k.a. Disco, leader of Tartit). “At the same time, as I listen and listen again, I feel that Khalab’s music is well harmonized with our voices, our songs, our instruments. I am strongly convinced of the power of innovation of the individual. The mixing of musical genres will keep our tradition alive.”
Recording sessions done solo and in groups were merged with other sounds then rocket-boosted by electronics and post-production in Italy with musicians Adriano Viterbini and Tommaso Cappellato. Ethnologist Barbara Fiore led Khalab into a deeper understanding of the Tuareg culture and traditions and helped him stay connected with the musicians from the M’berra camp.
The Malians with their sand-burnt eyes and candy-coloured robes are deftly captured through the lens of Caimi, whose intimate portraits conjure an enchantment made stark by the surreal desert backdrop.
M’berra is stories within stories: of individual lives upended and reconfigured. Of a small but thriving music scene in an ephemeral metropolis. Of a humanitarian organisation that not only aids but enables. Of an Italian producer tasked with creating a project that unites, transports and heals.
Of the essential nature of music.