63 has gone, but will return
That time has left us memories
It murdered the old folk and a child just born
It swooped down to the pastures and wiped out the cattle
America can bear witness, and Lebanon too
Russia supplied the arms inflamed
My sisters were hunted down without mercy
Those who I would exchange for nothing on this earth
Because love is powerful and strong
It penetrates the soul, and blisters
--"Soixante Trois", by Tinariwen
Images of the desert-as-desolation are burned into our minds: the dune, a towering pile of sand, wrought wavy by the wind, and behind that another one, and another behind that, to the horizon. It's an environment that man can't permanently scar. Its tendency to shift keeps it trackless, and attempts to tame the desert with paved roads and machines have failed pathetically. Living in the desert is contingent on realizing that trying to tame it is useless in the long term, and that you must learn to live by the rules it imposes on you.
The Kel Tamashek people who call the vast, arid expanse of the west-central Sahara home have lived with the desert for millennia. They built their society around the camel and live as nomads-- when your environment is impermanent, it follows that your home should be as well. In spite of our popular conception, the Sahara is not one big sea of dunes; much of it is rocky plateau, gravel plain, and salt flat, but these other regions are scarcely less harsh and can undergo quick changes based on the whims of the weather.
The world as we know it today would be quite different without Kel Tamashek, better known to the world at large as the Tuareg. It was they who facilitated the trans-Saharan caravan routes that kept the Arab and Berber traders of Africa's Mediterranean coast in contact with the cities and empires of Sub-Saharan Africa, and this had a huge effect on the distribution of wealth in the world before the age of European dominance. (For many centuries, it also abetted an appalling slave trade.) But for all their centuries of mastering the Sahara in all its harshness and scarcity, today the Kel Tamashek are forced to navigate a post-colonial international system that frowns on nomads. Their homeland is split among Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Libya, and Algeria, and while it could be argued that the borders are simply lines on a map drawn at random by the French (that's essentially the case, after all), those lines are still enforced by militaries and customs outposts.
The political realities of the last 100 years, from the colonialism to the post-colonial carve-up of Africa, have forced changes to Kel Tamashek culture and daily life, sparking a longing amongst the people for a homeland to call their own. Over the past century, theirs has been a history of rebellion, first against French invaders, and later against the governments those invaders left behind. If there is anything that can give a voice to rebellion and the collective longing of a people, it is music, and the past few years have seen profusion of desert guitar bands who together have created that voice through powerful songs and hypnotic rhythms.
Tinariwen and Assouf
The roots of today's Kel Tamashek guitar revolution lie in varied soil. From a purely musical standpoint, it descends from traditional chant music played on distant relatives of the guitar, which in turn draws from sources north and south. The music of Al Andalus to the north-- a family of sounds extending from flamenco in Spain through Arabesque and Berber orchestras in North Africa and Lebanese string music-- is one source of input, while the myriad musics of the Sahel, a semi-arid band of land that spans Africa to the south of the Sahara, are also close relatives.
The pentatonic scales echo those heard along the curve of the Niger River, and it's easy to draw a line through the music of Senegal, Guinea, southern Mali, and other parts of West Africa straight to American blues. This YouTube video isn't much to look at, but it's soundtracked by a Tamashek chant recorded in the 1930s that offers a good glimpse of the connection between traditional Kel Tamashek music and the modern, electrified version (I believe the stringed instrument is a tehardent, a three-stringed lute related to the ngoni and ultimately the guitar):
Other tributaries of the modern sound are less tangible. Among the most important is the concept of assouf. It's a word that doesn't translate directly (even the spelling varies, as Tamashek is written in one of the world's oldest continuously used alphabets and, much like Hebrew or Arabic, doesn't directly transliterate), but in practice it is remarkably like the blues. Longing, loneliness, nostalgia-- in the liner notes of Tinariwen's Aman Iman album, an unnamed nomad is paraphrased saying that assouf is everything that lies in the darkness beyond the light of the campfire.
Finally, someone had to tie all these things together and make something of them, and that person was Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, leader of Tinariwen, the group that invented the modern Tuareg sound. Ibrahim was just a young child when his father was killed by the Malian army during the Kel Tamashek's 1963 rebellion against the newly independent nation. The rebellion was suppressed with all-too-common brutality, including the massacres of civilians (I'd be remiss to portray the rebels themselves as saints-- they committed their own crimes), and forced many to flee to refugee camps in Libya and Algeria.
It was in the Algerian town of Tamanrasset, at the northern end of the Hoggar-- one of the two principle routes across the west-central Sahara-- that in 1979 Ibrahim learned to play guitar from a man who happened to own one. He quickly bought that guitar himself, started a group, and set about developing the technique that became the signature of the style. The band switched to electric guitars as soon as they heard them, falling in love with the sound. They named themselves Tinariwen, the plural of ténéré, the Tamashek word for desert-- the Kel Tamashek consider the Sahara to be many deserts.
The sound of Tinariwen is at once trance-inducing and dance-inspiring, using insistent rhythm and fairly static harmony to build a surging bed for the lead vocals and answering chants. As many as four guitars and a bass mass over simple percussion to form a cloud of sound. Much like the desert itself, the music is a constantly shifting landscape. It is not restful music, even at its most repetitive. Each individual note played by the lead guitar expounds upon this-- no note is left to ring out at a constant volume and pitch. This approach of vibrating, slurring, and fluttering each note brings the soul of the music right to the fore, every pluck of the strings a dune in an ocean of dunes.
Listen to "Matadjem Yinmixan" to see what I mean:
Tinariwen have rightfully grown to international fame-- they are for the Kel Tamashek essentially what Bob Marley was for Jamaica, an emissary that confronts the struggle and sadness of their people head-on in infectious, emotionally charged songs. This is Tinariwen's other great innovation: When they moved on from playing traditional songs rooted in the past to playing their own compositions that spoke of modern turmoil and dreams, they became the sound of their people. It took two decades of circulating cassettes, interrupted by war in northern Mali and Niger in the late 80s and early 90s, for them to find an international audience, but they have, and I was hooked from the moment I heard the Radio Tisdas Sessions back in 2002.
Tinariwen performing "Chet Boghassa", originally from the Amassakoul LP, at WOMAD in 2004:
Tinariwen weren't alone in plying their music for long, and as the wider world finally caught wind of them, other bands came to light as well. I've yet to hear one that wasn't worth it.
Tartit do not sound like Tinariwen. A straight description of their music might read similarly, but this band-- comprised of five women and four men from central Mali-- is much quieter, mostly acoustic, and gives off a different vibe. It's more traditional-- it includes the tehardent as well as the electric guitar-- and the heart of each song is the singing of the women, who also play a small drum called the tinde that can be easily converted into a mortar for grinding grain by removing the goatskin head. Tartit's music powerfully conveys the concept of assouf in its simple and direct songs.
They have two albums out in the West, 2000's Ichichila, and 2007's Abacabok. Listen to "Houmeissa", from Abacabok:
Etran Finatawa is not strictly a Kel Tamashek group-- half the group is Wodaabe, another nomadic group that inhabits the southern Sahara and northern Sahel in Niger. Their album cover photos are carefully posed to show an integrated group, the Wodaabe with their painted faces dispersed amongst the scarfed Kel Tamashek men (and they are naturally standing at the peak of a sand dune). The music is similarly integrated, crossing acoustic guitars, lutes, and hand drums with electric guitars to back a mix of Tamashek chanting and Wodaabe singing.
The polyphonic, nasal singing of the Wodaabe members (the Kel Tamashek sing from the back of the throat) distinguishes Etran Finatawa from its counterparts and adds a further cross-cultural element that neatly reflects the need for the Kel Tamashek to cooperate with their neighbors to preserve their way of life.
Etran Finatawa has two Western releases, 2006's Introducing and the recently released Desert Crossroads. Listen to "Kel Tamasheck" from Desert Crossroads:
Here's a nicely shot video of Etran Finatawa performing on Irish television:
Toumast are a relatively new band, led by Moussa Ag Kenya and his cousin Aminatou Goumar. Formed in 2001 but just now receiving their international debut, the band draws its principal inspiration from the music of Tinariwen, but pushes the sound outward. There are definite traces of jazz on their debut album, Ishumar, and even a turn into a sort of desert hip-hop. Moussa keeps his guitar set on stun, and Aminatou's wild ululations (a sound made by women in cultures across Africa) add to the edge. The music is deeply political-- Moussa was wounded during the last uprising against the governments of Niger and Mali and turned to music when he could no longer fight.
Listen to "Maraou Oran (For Twelve Moons)", from Ishumar.
Toumast live at WOMEX in Spain last year:
Group Inerane are a hard band to hear, because their only Western release was a 1,000-copy vinyl pressing by the good people at Sublime Frequencies last year, but if given the chance do hear them. They are a rough-and-tumble outfit, often employing a drum kit in addition to the typical hand drums and playing with a ferocity peculiar to them. They also appear on the SF DVD Niger: Magic and Ecstasy in the Sahel, which is well worth watching.
Kel Tamashek guitar music has several very close cousins in neighboring communities, and while it would take many words to get into much detail about any of them, I'll simply make a few suggestions. I'm skipping guys like Ali Farka Touré and Boubacar Traoré partly because their music comes from a different place, spiritually, and also because there's way too much to say about them to say here. West African guitar music is hugely varied, and I'm focusing on one strain here.
Moorish guitar music is tough to get your ears on, largely because Mauritania lacked even a basic recording industry for most of its independent existence, but some recordings do exist. Its use of modal improvisation within song structures is reminiscent of Tinariwen's free-flowing style. Buda Musique put out a good collection of recordings by Moudou Ould Mattalla several years ago (it seems to be out of print), but the best recording of Mauritanian guitar music I've heard is currently streaming at Matthew LaVoie's brilliantly curated Voice of America African Music Blog. Check the track by Hammadi Ould Nana and plug your ears, because your brain might very well flow out of them if you don't.
Saharawi band Group Doueh is named for its leader and operates in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony on Africa's Atlantic coast with an uncertain future. It is technically governed by Morocco, but also claimed by Mauritania and home to a persistent independence movement. Doueh knows his Hendrix as well as his Moorish modes, and his only official recording, released in a limited vinyl pressing by Sublime Frequencies, is bloody insane. It has a harmonic structure that mirrors the music of nearby styles, but-- and this is partly down to the raw, dirty recording-- it's intensely rough, blowing across your ears like a sandstorm across your face. The vinyl run is sold out is on SF's website, but I understand they'll be featured on a forthcoming DVD (their Folk Music of the Sahara DVD is also great and features plenty of Kel Tamashek music).