Hailing from a region poor in resources but rich in culture, the Tuareg people span across much of the Saharan desert.
With the rise of music sharing through cellphone MP3’s this genre has been able to spread across the vast Sahara and even abroad.
The Tuareg people are traditionally nomadic pastoralist with no recognized homeland. However, the Tuareg people call the vast Saharan desert home inhabiting countries such as Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Tunisia.
The history of the Tuareg people’s history has been steeped with conflict. With no majority in any of the countries they inhabit they have faced persecution ultimately leading to forced exile and rebellion. Many Tuaregs moved to Algeria and Libya in order to join in rebellion armies and live in exile. While in Libya and Algeria, many men learned to play the guitar, ultimately creating a playing style that is synonymous with the Tuareg people. Today, the Tuaregs still face persecutions. However, in part due to their music, more light has been shed on the plight of these people.
Arguably the biggest name in Tuareg music, the collective known as Tinariwen — meaning desert in Tamashek — began in 1979 in Tamanrasset, Algeria. Many members of the band were forced into exile from Mali and Niger, largely due to their affiliation to the Tuareg independence movement. Multiple members of the band joined rebel fighter to fight for the rights of the Tuareg people. Their music encompasses this, focusing mainly on the plight of the people and their way of life. In 1989, the collective was allowed to resettle in Mali however the band has faced ongoing issues due to civil unrest and persecution of their music. Amadjar, their most recent album, was recorded in the desert using mobile equipment while they were unable to return to Mali due to unrest.
Tinariwen exudes the desert with every song taking the listener on a journey through the vast Saharan desert. Their music is deeply personal even if one doesn’t understand Tamasheq, the daily struggle of the people and their love for the land comes through despite the langue barrier. The lyrics, often based on Tuareg poetry, focus heavily of the landscape of the desert, love, loss and travel. Their playing style is very raw, feeling as if you are sitting around the fire along side them. The band seamlessly meshes traditional Tuareg style of instrumentation with melodic psychedelic undertones and influences of the blues and western twang. Their music is one that transports the listener to the land of the Tuaregs. A true rebel band, having paved the way for music from the region as well as fighting for the rights of the Tuaregs both with arms and through music.
A true god of the DIY scene, having made his first guitar out of wood and bike parts, Mdou Moctar has reached international recognition. Hailing from Abalak, Niger, a small village in the Saharah, Moctar was raised in a very religious household where music was prohibited. He taught himself how to play the guitar, instantly becoming a success and playing weddings all round Niger. With the aid of cellphone transferred MP3’s, his music quickly spread across the desert, gaining the attention of Sahels Sounds’ Christopher Kirkley. Moctar has also stared and produced in the first movie in the Tamasheq langue, entitled “Rain The Color Blue With A Little Red In It,” a remake of Prince’s Purple Rain.
His inspiration from Jimi Hendrix and Prince can be heard in his ecstatic playing and jam like songs making him one of the greatest guitarists of the Sahel. The fuzzy and often trance like songs feed into his neo-psychedelic blues sound which is further accentuated with his gritty vocals. His music is pure shred, mixing loud blistering sounds with soft trance like ballads. He has made a sound for himself that is easily distinguished by its unique yet familiar Tuareg sound. Moctar pushes the boundaries of Tuareg music while still sticking true to his roots allowing him to enter the world stage.
Reclaiming the traditional music of tende, a female dominated music style distinguished by purely vocals, handclaps and percussion, Les Filles de Illighadad are bringing a new genre of Tuareg music to the west. The band, who’s name translates to “The Girls of Illighadad,” are from a remote village in central Niger. Consisting of three women and one of the members brother who plays the guitar when touring. Lead vocalist, Fatou Seidi Ghali, is the first female Tuareg guitarist, teaching herself how to play of her brothers’ guitar. Using the traditional percussion technique of a calabash in water as well as traditional drums and traditional vocalizations techniques alongside less traditional guitar techniques.
Their music is mesmeric and tender, the guitar purely adds a backbone to the vocals that are the true driving force. The vocal synchronization and rhythm between the women are heavy and adds depth to the music sending the listener into a deep meditation. Les Filles de Illighadad are truly paving the way for women and the revitalization of tradition through their music.
A Tuareg guitar virtuoso, Bombino is from Tidene, Niger however due to civil unrest his family was forced to seek refuge in Algeria. Just like many other guitarists from the region he taught himself how to play. Eventually studying under renowned Tuareg guitarist Haja Bebe and joining his band. Watching videos, he studied the techniques of Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopler in an effort to become a better guitarist. He was forced into exile again after civil unrest that resulted in the killing of two of his band members. Ultimately, it was in Burkina Faso where he was tracked down to record an album. This album led to his prominence in the west and gained increased attention by fellow musicians.
Bombino exudes quintessential Tuareg guitar music while also testing the waters of other genres. In much of his music there is influence of reggae adding a bounce to traditional Tuareg music, creating a new genre he coined as, “Tuareggae.” This sense of lightness added to the somewhat heaviness associated with Tuareg music perfectly melds together. This adaptation attests to the resourcefulness of the Tuareg people and adaption to the ever-changing climate. Bombino is somewhat of a genre bender, seamlessly fusing traditional Tuareg guitar with the rocksteady of reggae resulting in the changing sound of Tuareg music. He, just like many other Tuareg musicians, is not following the rules in order to create his own unique style.
Marco Zanghi is a Cal Poly Environmental Management and Protection sophomore and KCPR staff member. He wrote the article. Olive Robertson is a Cal Poly Graphic Communications sophomore and KCPR staff member. She created the illustration.