The image of the Sahara Desert with camels, tents and men in robes playing Fender guitars is a perplexing yet incredibly cool thing to see. When most people think of rock music, rarely do they associate it with African culture. The modern guitar, especially electric, is mostly assumed to Western culture. But for Tuareg people, the guitar has become an important part of their society and artistic expression, although it hasn’t always been welcome.
The Tuareg inhibit a vast region of the Sahara desert in West Africa. They don’t call a singular country their own, but inhibit the various villages of Niger, Mali, Algeria and Libya according to Wikipedia. They often face political strife with each of these countries on the grounds of religious and political disagreements.
In the past 40 years, hypnotic guitar driven “desert blues” has emerged as an alternative soundtrack to the violence and cries of generations of Tuareg people and is now the most popular contemporary music in the Sahara. Originally political ballads, the sound now expands to love songs, loud psych-rock and synthesised drum machines. The record company Satchel Sounds says what trademarks this style is its poetic roots and pentatonic solos of a lead 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 wedding bands. In Western Africa, playing for weddings is the equivalent of a punk or DIY music scene here in the United States, meaning a small community of artists who know and support one another. These three have made their careers as touring musicians and have used their talents to share stories of hope and struggle with the world.
The first is one of the original 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 founding member of the band, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, witnessed the execution of his Tuareg rebel father at the age of four. This experience gave him an intimate view of the political unrest and violence in his region, and a specific voice and narrative to share through his music. A few years later he made his own guitar out of a plastic water can, a stick and fishing wire after seeing someone playing one in a western film. And from then on, he was hooked on guitar music.
In the 1970s, he connected with other musicians in the Tuareg rebel community to explore different aspects of protest music and join a loose group that played for weddings. In the ‘80s Alhabib received military training in Libya. During that period he met several other musicians and loosely banded together to create guitar music that documented the sounds and cries of the Tuareg people. They inhibit a nomadic culture with difficult means of communication, meaning the members change constantly, and they rarely tour with the same group twice.
Since 2001, they have received worldwide recognition after the release of their first officially recorded album “The Radio Tisdas Sessions”, and they have been touring ever since. They have appeared at several music festivals all over Western Africa, Europe and North America. In the past 20 years they have also taken on several younger members who didn’t live through the same political violence the founding members did. Tinariwen spans generations and continents, and continues to put out great records that both fans of Tuareg music and newcomers can appreciate.
Their sound is primarily the guitar-driven style of the Tuareg people. It is also rooted in West African folk music as their core sound comes from traditional Tuareg melodies adapted to guitar. Their rhythm section stands out with the tende drum and complimenting guitars. Initially, some of the members were fans of bootlegged albums by famous western rock musicians like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Bob Dylan, and that influence still lives on in their sound today.
Essential tracks by Tinariwen are “Sastanàqqàm,” “Le Chant Des Fauves,” and “Toumast Tincha.”
Another musician is Goumar Almocta, known as Bombino. Born in 1980, he is a part of a slightly different era than other Tuareg musicians like Tinariwen. He is a Nigerian Tuareg singer-songwriter and guitarist, and he sings in Tamasheq, the native language of the region, according to wikipedia. He started playing music after the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s forced him to flee to Algeria for safety. In that time, he picked up the guitar and taught himself how to play with his friends by watching videos of Jimi Hendrix. Years later, he studied with a renowned Tuareg guitarist Haja Bebe who helped him develop his style, and in his band he earned the nickname Bombino.
In 2007, tensions built in Niger, resulting in another Tuareg rebellion. The government, in hopes to extinguish the rebels, banned guitars for the Tuareg people because the instrument was seen as a symbol of rebellion. During this time two of Bombino’s band members were executed, forcing him into exile into the neighboring country Burkina Faso.
In his time away from Niger he joined another band, Tidawt, and that led to his first trip to North America. During that visit he was able to be a part of various projects and performed at an exhibit of Tuareg culture. When tensions finally settled in 2010, he was able to return to his home of Agadez, Niger. To celebrate the depletion of the conflict, a large concert was organized at the base of the Grand Mosque ther, and Bombino played to over a thousand singing and dancing people.
His 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 break through the language barrier and communicate stories of trials and conflict that he has witnessed firsthand, but also hope.
Essential Bombino 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 band. According to Wikipedia, he was born in 1986, making him the youngest of these groups. He represents a slightly more modern phase of the Tuareg sound. Like Bombino, he is from Agadez, a desert village in rural Niger. Growing up, he wanted to play the guitar after hearing many other guitar-driven Tuareg groups, but his parents disapproved of “electric” music and refused to get him one. So, like many other musicians in the region, 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 than other Tuareg bands before him. His first album, recorded in 2008, became hugely popular in the region before it was even released due to cell phone music trading networks which has become the most popular way to share music in Western Africa. After that, his music has become hugely popular far beyond the scope of the Sahara, with his fifth studio album “llana (The creator)”, named by NPR’s Bob Boilen in an article, “the most fiery psych-rock of the 21st century.”
His Spotify bio says that beyond his talent as a guitarist, Moctar produced and starred in the first ever Tuareg language film, “Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai”, which translates to “Rain The Color Of Blue With A Little Red In It.” 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 in the world.
Their sound reshapes and honors traditional Tuareg melodies and blends them with classic psychedelic rock. They have now joined New York based label Matador Records who are backing their latest album “Afrique Victime” which is set to come out on May 21st, 2021. In a blog post for the album, Matador records says their newest album is mid-’70s to early ’80s Van Halen meets Black Flag meets Black Uhuru. It showcases the power of Moctor’s lead guitar while also highlighting the hypnotic rhythm section. They also plan to prove they are more than traditional rock by including acoustic tracks as well.
Essential Mdou Moctar tracks are “Tarhatazed,” “Anar,” and “Kamane Tarhanin.”
Traditional rock and blues music in the West stemmed from the racial and sociopolitical issues facing America, namely the American south. Something about blues music is able to so beautifully capture the melancholy of a country and a people in conflict. This Tuareg “desert blues” brings that feeling to the listener. These artists transcend the language barrier and brilliantly showcase the ability music has to communicate the struggles of a people to any audience. These are true artists by any definition of the term, and are worth a listen, even if rock music isn’t your thing. They tell stories and weave intricate narratives of pain, violence, love and celebration into every track. And you can’t deny, seeing a Stratocaster strapped to a camel’s back has to be one of the coolest, if not, the most Rock’ N Roll thing ever.