The image of the Sahara Desert with camels, tents, and robed men playing Fender guitars is a confusing but incredibly cool thing to see. When most people think of rock music, they rarely associate it with African culture. The modern guitar, especially electric, is mainly assumed by Western culture. But for the Tuaregs, the guitar has become an important part of their society and their artistic expression, even if it has not always been welcome.
The Tuareg inhibit a large region of the Sahara Desert in West Africa. They do not appropriate a singular country, but inhibit the different villages of Niger, Mali, Algeria and Libya according to Wikipedia. They often face political conflicts with each of these countries due to religious and political disagreements.
Over the past 40 years, hypnotic guitar “desert blues” has become an alternative soundtrack to the violence and screams of generations of Tuaregs and is now the most popular contemporary music in the Sahara. Originally political ballads, the sound now extends to love songs, loud psych-rock and synthesized drum machines. Record label Satchel Sounds says the hallmarks of this style are its poetic roots and pentatonic solos from a solo guitar, but the options are limitless.
There are hundreds of unique and interesting bands coming out of this fascinating place, each with their own story. Many of them start out as alliances. In West Africa, performing for weddings is the equivalent of a punk or DIY music scene here in the United States – a small community of artists who know and support each other. These three made careers as touring musicians and used their talents to share stories of hope and struggle with the world.
The first is one of the originals and one of the oldest: Tinariwen. According to Wikipedia, they were formed in 1979 in Algeria but returned to Mali during a peace in the 1990s. The group’s founding member, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, witnessed the execution of his rebel Tuareg father at the age four. This experience gave him an intimate vision of political unrest and violence in his region, as well as a specific voice and narrative to share through his music. A few years later, he made his own guitar from a plastic water canister, stick and fishing line after seeing someone play one in a western movie. And from there he got addicted to guitar music.
In the 1970s, he connected with other musicians from the Tuareg rebel community to explore different aspects of protest music and join a loose band that performed for weddings. In the 1980s, Alhabib received military training in Libya. During this period he met several other musicians and loosely associated to create guitar music that documented the sounds and cries of the Tuareg people. They inhibit a nomadic culture with difficult means of communication, which means members are constantly changing, and they rarely tour twice with the same group.
Since 2001, they have received worldwide recognition following the release of their officially recorded debut album “The Radio Tisdas Sessions”, and have been touring ever since. They have appeared in several music festivals in West Africa, Europe and North America. Over the past 20 years, they have also hired several younger members who have not experienced the same political violence as the founding members. Tinariwen crosses generations and continents, and continues to release superb records that Tuareg music fans and newcomers alike can enjoy.
Their sound is mainly the guitar style of the Tuareg people. It is also rooted in West African folk music as their basic sound comes from traditional Tuareg melodies adapted for guitar. Their rhythm section stands out with tense drums and complementary guitars. Initially, some of the members were fans of pirated albums by famous Western rock musicians like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Bob Dylan, and that influence is still present in their sound today.
The essential pieces of Tinariwen are “Sastanàqqàm”, “Le Chant Des Fauves” and “Toumast Tincha”.
Another musician is Goumar Almocta, known as Bombino. Born in 1980, he is part of an era a little different from other Tuareg musicians like Tinariwen. He is a Nigerian Tuareg singer-songwriter and guitarist, and he sings in Tamasheq, the region’s native language, according to wikipedia. He started playing music after the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s forced him to flee to Algeria for safety. At that time he picked up the guitar and learned to play with his friends by watching videos of Jimi Hendrix. Years later he studied with a famous Tuareg guitarist Haja Bebe who helped him develop his style, and in his band he earned the nickname Bombino.
In 2007, tensions set in in Niger, leading to another Tuareg rebellion. The government, in the hope of extinguishing the rebels, banned guitars for the Tuareg people because the instrument was seen as a symbol of rebellion. Meanwhile, two of Bombino’s group members were executed, forcing him into exile in neighboring Burkina Faso.
While away from Niger, he joined another group, Tidawt, and this led to his first trip to North America. During this visit, he was able to participate in various projects and participate in an exhibition on Tuareg culture. When tensions finally eased in 2010, he was able to return to his home in Agadez, Niger. To celebrate the exhaustion of the conflict, a large concert was organized at the foot of the Great Mosque, and Bombino performed in front of more than a thousand people singing and dancing.
Its sound is hypnotic folk and blues, like a mix of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Johnny Lee Hooker. He has worked with many renowned producers in the United States and Europe, and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys produced his second album. His sound and emotion cross the language barrier and communicate stories of trials and conflicts that he has witnessed first-hand, but also of hope.
Bombino’s essential tracks are “Tamiditine”, “Imajghane” and Tar Hani (My Love). “
The third and most recent Tuareg guitarist to emerge is Mahamadou Souleymane, known as Mdou Moctar, which is also the name of his group. According to Wikipedia, he was born in 1986, which makes him the youngest of these groups. It represents a slightly more modern phase of the Tuareg sound. Like Bombino, he is originally from Agadez, a desert village in rural Niger. Growing up, he wanted to play the guitar after hearing many other Tuareg guitar-oriented groups, but his parents frowned upon “electric” music and refused to buy him one. So, like many other musicians in the area, he built his own guitar and mastered it from YouTube tutorials of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar techniques.
With the rise of technology, Moctar’s popularity evolved differently from other Tuareg groups before him. Her debut album, recorded in 2008, became immensely popular in the region even before its release due to cell phone music exchange networks, which have become the most popular way to share music in Africa. Where is. After that, his music became extremely popular far beyond the reach of the Sahara, with his fifth studio album “llana (The Creator)”, named by Bob Boilen of NPR in an article, “the most spirited psych-rock of the 21st century”.
His Spotify biography says that beyond his talent as a guitarist, Moctar produced and starred in the very first film in the Tuareg language, “Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai”, which translates to “Rain the color of blue with a bit of red in “. This film is a remake of Prince’s 1984 film “Purple Rain”, told through the lens of a struggling Tuareg musician trying to make his way through the world.
Their sound reshapes and honors traditional Tuareg melodies and mixes them with classic psychedelic rock. They have now joined New York-based label Matador Records which is backing their latest album “Africa Victim” which is due out on May 21, 2021. In a blog post for the album, Matador Records says their new album is at mid- ‘ From the 70s to the beginning of the 80s, Van Halen meets Black Flag meets Black Uhuru. It showcases the power of Moctor’s lead guitar while highlighting the hypnotic rhythm section. They also plan to prove that they are more than traditional rock by including some acoustic tracks as well.
Mdou Moctar’s essential tracks are “Tarhatazed”, “Anar” and “Kamane Tarhanin”.
Traditional rock and blues music in the West stems from the racial and socio-political issues facing America, namely the southern United States. Something in blues music is able to capture the melancholy of a country and a people in conflict so beautifully. This Tuareg “desert blues” brings this feeling to the listener. These artists transcend the language barrier and brilliantly show the ability of music to communicate the struggles of a people to any audience. They are real artists, however you define the term, and worth listening to, even if rock is not your thing. They tell stories and weave intricate tales of pain, violence, love and celebration into each song. And you can’t deny it, seeing a Stratocaster strapped to a camel’s back has to be one of the coolest things, if not the most rock and roll of all time.