Ever since Woody Guthrie slapped a “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker on his guitar, pop music has been a breeding ground for the rebel mentality. From Guthrie to Dylan, Bob Marley to Public Enemy, The Clash to Rage Against the Machine, Manu Chao to M.I.A., there’s been no shortage of artists eager to take up the mantle of musical freedom fighter and cultural agitator. But how many of these chic revolutionaries ever picked up a weapon and literally fought the power? Precious few.
A whole new genre of music and a new generation of bands—each of them with genuine, first-hand roles in a real-life rebel movement—is emerging in northern Africa. Their cause was the Tuareg rebellion, which swept the Southern Sahara desert in the early ’90s after decades of draught and discrimination against the nomadic northerners by the governments of Mali and Niger. The sound spawned by this little-known conflict has been dubbed “desert rock,” and its brightest stars are Tinariwen, Abdallah Oumbadougou and now Toumast—all artists who put down their guns and picked up guitars in the name of peace. Toumast is a Paris-based unit anchored by guitar-slinging cousins Moussa Ag Keyna and Aminatou Goumar, produced by French multi-instrumentalist Dan Lévy, and rounded out by a crack team of session players. Like their better-known compatriots Tinariwen, the group plays a hypnotic, guitar-driven hybrid of rock, blues and traditional Tuareg music, where propulsive handclapping and eerie female vocals punctuate explosive bursts of guitar. Toumast has been  garnering lots of attention lately, touring internationally and performing some high profile gigs at last year’s WOMEX conference in Seville, Spain, and making its much-heralded stateside debut in January at the annual globalFEST in New York City. This spring, the group’s first international release, Ishumar (Real World), promises to shed even more light on what all the fuss is about.
Lead guitarist and singer Moussa Ag Keyna is lean and wiry, with dark eyes that twinkle with sad, wry humor under his traditional blue headscarf. Offstage he’s quiet and reserved—definitely not the kind of guy anyone would peg as a revolutionary firebrand or a former freedom fighter. But when recounting his story and his role in the Tuareg rebellion, he becomes passionate.
“I was only 15 when I came to the military camps,” he recalls, referring to the training camps that were set up for the Tuareg in Libya by the Qaddafi government. “That’s where I discovered the guitar. I began to sing about what I lived over there and how my companions and I really wished to live. There was a lot of nostalgia. It was lonely to find myself in an unknown place with mostly older men—people who were mostly my father’s age. But there was solid