Following Footsteps: A Journey into the Nomadic Heart
Join filmmaker Kathi von Koerber, her partner Nando, and RS's Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan on the Reality Sandwich Plant Medicine Retreat in Costa Rica, August 15-22. This is an RS Encore Presentation of an interview with Kathi von Koerber that was originally published on December 8, 2008.
For many thousands of years, a nomadic people known as the Tuareg have carved out an austere existence in northern Africa’s Sahara desert. Learning to live, and even to thrive, in this unforgiving environment, the Tuareg developed an ascetic way of life founded upon what they see as the root necessities of survival. Not surprisingly, access to water is of supreme importance. But equally vital, they believe, are some elements that might seem strangely out of place by Western standards: the virtue of hospitality, the transcendental power of music and dance, and total submission to the unifying flow of nature. In the harsh reality of the desert, life is simple – but infinitely deep.
Filmmaker Kathi von Koerber’s debut documentary, Footsteps in Africa: A Nomadic Journey, plumbs the mystical depths of Taureg culture and philosophy to offer a stunningly visceral depiction of the nomadic experience. Shot among tribal villages and desert festivals in Mali, the film is a stylized, shifting collage of evocative still images and vivid slices of Saharan life. Interviews with tribal elders are woven with dreamlike sequences of Taureg dancing, drumming, and chanting. Animated spirals twirl and fade between scenes, invoking an underlying realm of symbolic, cosmic truth. As Footsteps in Africa unfolds its stream-of-consciousness narrative, the intangible essence of the Tuareg comes magically into view.
And, of course, pulsing throughout the film is the very lifeblood of the Tuareg way: Music. Songs are the primary mode of communication; they are the language through which Tuareg history is recorded and their emotions are expressed. The roving film crew, a collective of visionary artists handpicked by Koerber, captured some amazing musical moments during their trek across the Malian Sahara. Especially thrilling are the performance segments shot at the Festival in the Desert, a Tuareg and world music gathering in Essakane, Mali that draws thousands from around the globe. As a Bhutto dancer and traveling performer, Koerber understands the unique ability of music to bridge cultural divides, and she illustrates this in her film’s diverse soundtrack. Layering spontaneous recordings of Tuareg songs with modern studio productions from international artists, a harmonious blend of tones and traditions results. The primordial frequencies buzzing in the Tuareg consciousness, we soon discover, resonate as well in the voices and hearts of all people.
Footsteps in Africa is a journey in many respects. As a window into a vastly different world, it is an experience of natural beauty and severity far removed from our movie theaters and computer screens. It is also a self-described “road trip film,” the Kerouacian chronicle of an adventurous band of artists rushing headlong into the African desert, facing the Unknown. But most directly, the film is a soul-searching journey into our modern selves, an expedition through the conditioned and commodified Western psyche where man’s connection to nature is forcibly obscured.
Though we might recognize our tragic separation, we are loath to trade our worldliness for the daily struggles of humble nomads. Why fight to survive when life can be so comfortable and easy? Yet the lingering echoes of Footsteps in Africa remain, bouncing around as a ponderous thought: For the Tuareg, the modern way of life is not simply tragic – it is a threat to survival itself.
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I recently spoke with Kathi von Koerber, the director of Footsteps in Africa: A Nomadic Journey, about her work on this inspiring, entrancing film.
ST: The Tuareg have been living in the Sahara for a long time – many thousands of years, it’s thought. At this point have they become more sedentary, or do they still follow a traditional nomadic lifestyle?
KK: We asked the village that we filmed how often they move in a year, and they said every four to six months. They’re not moving every day, by any means. Those days are kind of over, at least in that part of Mali. Because of the rebellions the Tuareg have put on over the years, they’ve been ousted at times to refugee camps. In Niger, at this moment, there are rebellions going on – it’s a funky situation over there – but in Mali it has kind of calmed down.
But the result of it is that they have kind of been limited, land-wise. Unlike thousands of years ago, there are geographical borders and principalities in place even in the middle of the desert. And you know, to live the way these people live, they do need to be near some sort of water and game, or maybe bushes that give them seeds or fruit. They basically eat nothing, but they do need something. So it does limit them, they can’t just go into the desert and set up camp. The way I understand it, then, is they stay in certain regions and circulate within, let’s say, a couple hundred kilometers diameter.
That is a limitation that they’ve had to accept, essentially. It was different before. Before it was most probably just follow the migration, because there was no city in the way. It’s not like you just bumped into civilization – everybody was nomadic.
A major theme in Footsteps in Africa is the importance of music and dance in Tuareg life. How is the music contextualized in their culture? Is it a spontaneous and improvisational expression, like a celebration, or are there distinct rituals and formalities being followed, as in a ceremony?
I think there are definitely ceremonial songs and dances that will be done for specific initiations, but they don’t really think of music and dance as anything specific. It’s just something they do, because they live by the stars and they’re not really on a clock out there. When they come together, that’s how they spend their time; they’ll talk and eat, but generally they’ll make music.
As a filmmaker and as a human being, being with them out in the desert and experiencing a sense of timelessness would really infiltrate my understanding of existence. I’d feel incredibly freed up. The frequency they live in – they don’t think about it, they’re just there. And that’s something I tried to show in the film just by letting the camera roll, to give people a sense of what it’s like to be there.
Watching the film, I noticed some interesting features in the roles between men and women in Tuareg society, especially related to music making and dance. For example, sometimes the dancers and musicians would be all male or female, and other times just the women would play while the men danced. What is the significance of the gender roles during these dances?
It kind of goes back a ways, in the sense that the Tuareg are a matriarchal society. They support women as leaders. In a more domestic sense, the women own the tent. So if the man divorces or takes another lover and she finds out, then she kicks him out and keeps the tent.
So that already sets the status quo that the women run the camp, and the men are the ones that, tribal-style, go out and hunt and bring food and water back. The women make the food, and they’re also the ones that basically own the drum. Like the drum is part of the home. Women being the nurturers, from what I observed, it’s like a very personal relationship of women nurturing the drum, nurturing the men, nurturing the village with music. So they tend to be the music players, on the drum, more than the men.
In terms of when the men dance, I think that because music is their oratory tradition, it’s like stories and wisdom can pass through. So it’s kind of like female and male initiation, and when they get together it’s because they have something to tell each other. It becomes a true blend of the men chanting with the women drumming, or whoever dances – it’s a dialog between the masculine and the feminine.
And the genders are kind of segregated – I mean, they’re roles. You will not find a woman hunting, ever. And it’s the same in the music; there’s chants that only the men do, the women will not join that. Then there’s so many songs that only women sing, the men listen. And I guess their way to dialog with the women’s music is to dance to it, so it becomes like a courting. So a lot of the music is based on love, like love songs.
It seems that so much of the communicating in the Tuareg culture comes through music and songs. From what you show in the film, I didn’t see a lot of conversation going on. Do they have other ways that they communicate, if not through casual talking?
Well, they do speak – but you know, it’s true, they do speak super-minimal. I’ve noticed that when they talk it’s very basic, like “Give me the cup,” or “Are you hungry?” I didn’t really see people having deep conversations. They are people that stand in their silence, and it’s a lot of body movement and action. With action, the proof is in the pudding because if you don’t act, you’re gonna die. The act of sharing, of pouring someone tea, that’s much more meaningful than a conversation.
When people meet in the desert, like one tribe to another, they ask you ten questions: “How’s your mother? How’s your father? Do you have water?” It’s like the fundamental roll-down of ten questions you ask someone when you first see them, and then they don’t really talk – they just drink tea!
It’s funny, but it’s really like that!
I can see the benefit of that. It sounds good to me!
Yeah, you know, you get all that out of the way, and then you get real. [Laughs.]
Speaking of conversations, I want to ask you about this man you interviewed who actually had a lot to say: the Tuareg elder, Mahmoud Ag Mohammed. He was a very enigmatic figure for me, as he spoke fluent French and seemed to have spent some time living the city life as well as being acculturated to the desert. What can you tell of his story?
Yeah, you guessed right. He is a former mayor of a big region in Mali called Gourmat, so he’s definitely an elite of sorts. He’s also a teacher who taught in Mali and did an exchange at one point in Norway, so he’s lived out of the country, doing case studies in Oslo. What was so interesting about interviewing him was that he basically told us, “Listen, I’ve seen it all, and I’ve chosen to live in the bush.” Like he was saying, “That’s where I’m going to come from in this interview.” And we honored that greatly.
Apropos, he unfortunately passed two months ago, and it was very profound because his son actually called me (and I hadn’t seen his son in two years) to tell me his father had passed. I was really moved. He was very welcoming to our group, and I realized again that as a teacher and a leader, he really acknowledged that we wanted to understand their culture. So he was very helpful. He was actually the last interview we did, and it was like everything just fell into place. It’s not like we fished with our questions. He was just so poignant with every answer, and he had a deep understanding of the crux of tribal cultures trying to survive in this day and age.
Yeah, that was how he struck me. It seemed that some of the issues he raised became the guiding themes of the film.
Totally. You know, I do want to say that all the text in the film is from any given interview we did. None of it is text that I decided to put in as my point of view; everything is from them.
That’s a nice touch – I like that!
There was one line in particular from Mahmoud that stood out for me: “If the world were to have a big cataclysm, the survivors might be among the nomads.” I think this is a really interesting message to us, which perhaps was his intention.
I think it was. You know, that man was full of intention, let me tell you! [Laughs.]
I’m sure! Is there a general sense among the Tuareg that modern society is headed for a fall like this, and the privations they go through willingly may someday be rewarded or vindicated?
Yeah, I think you won’t find that all the Tuareg feel like that. You’ll always have that fair amount of rebellious youth that just want to, you know, get the goods of commercial culture. But then there are the ones of Mahmoud’s nature, and there’s a lot of them, very wise and resilient people that kind of observe the world from a distance. I mean, he was listening to his transistor radio all the time. He had a little solar panel on his tent, and he would listen to the BBC!
A lot of the Tuareg leaders are very smart people. Just a side story, when the rebellion was going on, the Malian government – the French-instated government – was trying to curb the rebellion and wanted to bring all the Tuareg chiefs out of the desert and into the city, to put them in jail. These people had to basically outsmart the government, and they did that by having people in the military that were also Tuareg play two cards: they pretended like they were helping the military, but they were really helping the Tuareg outrun the government.
And the way they did that, and still do now to stay in touch, is they all have satellite phones! The leaders, these kind of people, they all function with satellite phones. You’re in the middle of the desert, they’re gonna drive you four, five, six hundred kilometers; make a right, make a left at that cactus; and you’re gonna arrive somewhere you were meant to be going, and there’s a satellite phone there! So they’re all connected.
What I am saying is they have a wry wisdom and understanding, like, “Let’s take the best we can get that can maintain our understanding.” They can see that there’s a downfall to consumer culture. I mean, they don’t produce any garbage; as soon as they come back from the city, they have garbage on their hands. If you look at the extras on the DVD there’s an interview we put in of Mahmoud Ag Mohammed where he says to the audience, “When you want water, you go to the fridge. That’s too easy!”
We didn’t put that in the film because we didn’t want him to come off as someone who’s pointing out all the wrongs with Western society, which he wasn’t doing, but we wanted to be careful of that. But they definitely understand that the Western culture has like a lazy aspect to it, and that’s actually the downfall – that the way to stay healthy is to submit oneself to these harsh encounters with reality. So yeah, they feel that – they see that.
I mean, there are very few African cultures, or any nomadic or tribal cultures in the world, that have understood to just take the absolute necessities from modern culture in order to help them maintain themselves. Because I think the downfall of many is that they just get all wrapped up in it and just abandon their ways, and they all move into the cities. But someone like Mahmoud – who was an elder, and a leader, and a former mayor – made a choice for his people, to say, “OK, I saw it, I did it. I’m going back into the bush.”
Yeah, that’s really a big statement. Everybody respected him greatly. I mean if you see him, he’s like this figure of light – just emanating light, somehow.
Your film weaves between two threads that are inherent in Tuareg life, which are the joyful experience of song and dance, and then the daily struggle to survive. From the modern perspective, these two are almost incompatible – in the same harsh environment to be joyfully singing and dancing. But I think to the Tuareg, they appear like a vital link.
For instance, there’s a quote from your interview with the director of the Festival in the Desert where he says, “Through the force of music, we are ready to face death.”
Definitely. How did you come to understand this relationship between survival and music?
Well, this may sound a bit esoteric, but as a filmmaker – as the person who moved the film – I understand that music is their connection to what we could call “spirit,” or being spiritual. And for that, it’s like water to the soul. You know, something’s got to keep these people alive. On a physical level, it’s water. But on a more spiritual level, it’s what I call the “frequencies” that they sing – sometimes very subtle music, or the voice is kind of quivering in and out of the bass drum beats.
On the soundtrack to the film, I tried to capture the raw music that exists there, but then also made like a composition of trying to draw the audience into the frequencies – just the sounds – that have the power of making people feel good. And so that could sound a little esoteric, but definitely, that’s why the film has so little wording in it. Ideally, you could just listen to it; you don’t even have to look at the picture. But the picture makes a nice extra touch, you know? You get some colors, some dream sequences, some thoughts and feelings you could empathize with, like, “Oh, I work hard, too,” or, “Man, it must be cold there!”
But essentially, I think a lot is based around the music as a frequency that connects these people to the stars. You know, if you go to the Dogon people in Mali, they’re a black tribe that are known as the people that believe they come from the star Sirius, the Dog Star. And these people, you know, they didn’t have telescopes, but they know exactly where that star is. And the same with the Tuareg, they navigate by the stars. So these people’s relationship to the stars is most probably unlike anybody that you or I have ever met. Because they live under the sky, and you know, in the desert it’s barren – it’s just stars, and you, and a fire at night. So for me, on a very spiritual level, these people connect to the stars through this music.
And I want to say something, because we did a performance at Essakane. It’s not in the film, we’re gonna make another film which is called Nomads of the 21st Century – you could call it the “making-of” for Footsteps, as it shows our team interacting with everybody, before we pick up the cameras. But as a performer, I cannot tell you how difficult it is to sing and dance in the middle of the desert because the air is full of sand, the earth is not solid, and it tires you out! With every breath you take, your body gets drier, so when you see those guys jumping up and down in their gowns, mimicking, god knows, spirit and animals and the force of nature flying through them – that takes so much energy. And really, they’re in trance; they’re in spirit. They’re connected to something that is much greater than them.
Would it be fair to call the trance work that the Tuareg do a type of shamanism?
That word obviously doesn’t exist in their culture. I think one would have to separate oneself and say, yeah, if you look at it from the outside. If you put a music or a dance therapist there, it’d be like a hundred percent yes. [Laughs.] But they don’t look at it that way. That’s the duality, though, that in modern society we don’t necessarily live it the way they do, intrinsically. Their community life is therapy. That’s what keeps the tribe together, that’s what keeps the vibration high. And that’s what keeps them able to live there, and not be like, “Screw it, I’m leaving.” [Laughs.] “I’m done with this!”
[Laughs.] Right, of course!
But there was one healer that we put in the film, which was the Koranic old guy at the beginning, and he said to us, as a joke, “Had you come another day, I would’ve had a man tied to a tree.”
“Oh, what do you mean with that?”
And he said, “Well, when people are mentally ill, we tie them to a tree for a few days.” So basically to instill the silence of the earth, instead of some mayhem in their head.
That’s great! So, I want to ask you about your production company, Kiahkeya. This was the group that performed at Essakane, the Festival in the Desert, and also served as your film crew for Footsteps?
If you would, just give me a little background on the group and what you all do.
Well, it’s like a satellite of artists that come together for different projects. Kiahkeya is out of Brooklyn, and it’s a platform for artists to execute creative, sustainable, productive projects. I chose deliberately, you could say, a renegade crew of people – very bohemian, very nomadic.
The photographer from Germany has done stories on Gypsy caravans in Iraq, Romania, and Spain. And the cameraman, 60 millimeter, from Chile, being a very kind of Fellini, mad-hat artist character, came with his Bolex [camera]. I was very in depth about the vibration I wanted him to pick up, the authenticity. I didn’t want to put a stipulation on it. I just wanted him to capture what’s really there, and that’s how he works in his daily life as well. The camerawoman from Holland, who’s been traveling around the world and documenting cultures – she works with leather, she does Capoeira. You know, people who are very earthy and grounded, in that sense.
And then the artists that came with us – we created a show called “Intaka.” Intaka is from a South African tribe, the Xhosa people, and it represents the bird, or freedom. So we created a show that we brought to Essakane with, like, Afro-Cuban dance, Indian temple dance, different dances and musical elements that they hadn’t seen. Because each of us represented something else: I’m German-South African; Tonya’s Native American-African American; Deva’s Mexican-German, but learned to dance in India.
And so all of us are very conscious and caring about the preservation of old cultures, and also finding ways of promoting environmentally friendly cultures. Also, understanding that people of our nature are a modern nomadic culture – like, “Where do we belong, anyways?” This world is one, at this point. Somehow that all became a vision, and the most important part of the vision was: we want to go over there as human beings and share what we’ve learned, and learn what they have to share. And so with that statement, we introduced ourselves to people, and then we would film.
And that is a whole other project, which is why there’s the other film I mentioned. I’ve totally run out of money, and I’m looking into ways to get a grant to cut that one. It certainly could be very good for education, inspiring people, you know? Every trip you take is like a medicine; you can really have a great dialog with other people.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I used to VJ a lot. I archived tribes from all over the world – Africa, Brazil, Mexico – and then decided I wanted to make a more accurate voyage that is longer standing, like storytelling. This is my first full-length.
You’ve described this film as a “road trip movie.” I imagine there were probably some pretty incredible synchronicities or serendipitous events that went down to bring the spirit of the film into being.
From the beginning to the end! Like, pre-production still in the United States – the people I would meet that would enable me to have direct contact to the right people in Mali. And when we got to Mali, them being like, “Oh, we’ve been waiting for you.” Like really kind of outrageous stuff.
You know, a lot of people ask me when they watch it, “How did you get in so easy? Those people seemed like they were really happy you were there!” Or like, “I don’t see any problems with you interacting with them.” It was really uncanny how fluidly it all went.
On that note, I really want to bring the film back to Africa. We’re talking with this organization called FilmAid.org. It passed their board in New York and now it’s with the tribe chiefs in Kenya, and they basically choose a film themselves for their tribe. And then it goes on a big truck and tours through all the refugee camps in the sub-Saharan Africa, where at a time, like 30,000 people will see the film. We’re going to find out very soon if that comes through. That idea makes me really happy – that they can see their own film, and that it can inspire their youth to make the right decisions.
That would be amazing.
Yeah, it’s like how the youth are here in the United States, and in other countries. I really am trying to get the film out to the youth in this country – African-American youth, you know – to understand the importance of learning about other cultures. Yeah, they’re tribal, and obviously you’re not going to go live like a Tuareg in your backyard. But the proverbs and the anecdotes, and their dignity, is something that we can all learn from.
Lastly, I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between the experience of Tuareg life in the desert – under harsh conditions, balanced by music and art – with the Burning Man experience, which I’m not sure if you’re familiar with—
Yeah, I’ve been there twice.
OK. So, do you think there are any appropriate analogies that can be drawn between these two worlds?
Yeah, I definitely think there are. I’ll have to think about it for a moment, because I see Burning Man being an attempt – especially by the American public – it’s like the last stand. You know, OK, we’re so deprived of living with nothing. We have so much in this culture we want to remove.
But then sometimes I have a hard time understanding Burning Man, because I see a lot of people bringing a lot of stuff out there. So I don’t see it being such a simplistic, spartan survival process. I get kind of caught up on it there. But I do think the film should show at Burning Man. I think if it could be shown on a really big screen with good sound, where people could really soak it up, I feel like that’s actually something that people are searching for out there. Yeah, I don’t know, what do you think?
I would pretty much agree. I think Burning Man is kind of like a blank canvas for us to dump all our baggage onto. At the same time, there is the survivalist aspect – but we’re just pretty well equipped to deal with it.
Honestly, I think it’s great that Burning Man happens. I think it’s a necessary aspect for this country. It’s touched a lot of people outside of this country already. There’s a fever about it, and it’s provided a new platform.
Thank you for talking with me, Kathi!
Thank you so much!
For inquiries about Footsteps in Africa: A Nomadic Journey and other Kiahkeya projects, visit: www.kiahkeya.com.Tweet