Saharan Blues – Tuareg Guitars as the Voice of a People

There are a few music styles that translate so universally like blues. Even though there are thousands of shades to this genre, the underlying feel of the music always points to a sense of melancholy, hardship and hurt, things which a person who has experienced these instantly recognizes and identifies with. Still, there are a couple of things we need to clear up right at the start.

First, blues, even though it has pain at its core, has never been about giving up and surrendering. Its goal is to release and give the listener and the performer an opportunity to vent the inner pressures that they’ve built up. Second, we need to establish that blues has never stopped evolving. It is still very much a musical form that is alive and changing, more than 100 years after its inception.

There are a few situations across the globe where blues has spread and was as significant to a people, as it originally was to the African Americans in the Deep South of the US. The Saharan Blues, the blues of the Tuareg people, is by no means a young branch of this type of music. It all started at the beginning of the 80s, in one of the harshest regions in the world, the Sahara desert, with a people caught in between five young nations attempting to establish nation states.

Oral Tradition at the Core

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The struggles of the Tuareg, a nomadic people trying to adapt to a quickly modernizing world around them, along with a complete change in trade and socio-political environment, which led to a forceful breaking of their clan-based society is a story of tragedy and hardship.

It would be quite pointless to attempt to paint the whole picture of the struggles they faced within these few lines. It would not do the story justice. Still, we can give you a glimpse of the situation by exploring the music that was born from all this misfortune.

Traditionally, the primary keepers of the Tuareg history were always women. These lessons in history and heritage have been passed on orally from one generation to the next in the form of songs and poems, but the ownership of the songs was always collective. This is curious, because the Tuareg have never been a unified people.

Still, like in most situations when history is passed on orally, there is freedom of interpretation and a small leeway to add and modify things, meaning that these gems of the Tuareg culture have grown over time. It is no wonder that the initial band that created this music style (Tinariwen, Tamikrest, Toumast, Terakaft) relied on traditional ways of delivering a message and reaching people. And, it most definitely worked!

The Music of the “Ishumar”

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Desert Blues is essentially music of the exiles or the “Ishumar”, who became an association for this sound. When Tinariwen was formed at the end of the 70s, guitars, especially electric guitars, were a rarity in the Sahara desert.

They put this foreign instrument as the melodic focal point of their music, intertwined with traditional Tuareg melodies and rhythm and created a unique combination which not only lit the hearts of their own people, but also exploded in popularity around the world.

The guitar was ascribed a new name, “Assouf”, a word that is also used to refer to the style and explains the feeling that is captured within its sound. It refers to longing, being homesick, and a pain that isn’t felt in the body, but in the soul.

The music of the Desert Blues still holds this foundation at its root today, thirty years after its inception, but the music has very much evolved since then. The popularity of the guitar as an instrument rose dramatically and the Tuareg fell in love with it.

Tempered by Hope and Conflict

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The younger Tuareg artists’ music tends to run more with the time in which it was created, and evolves impacted by western influences to which it has been exposed. Still, the roots remain healthy and draw from their tradition.

Bombino, one of the most prominent and respected young artists in both the world and within the culture of the Tuareg, openly speaks about the reverence and respect he holds for the work of the pioneers of the genre.

And, why wouldn’t he, considering the trials and hardships the pioneers faced while still maintaining their will and finding the time to create and perform new music. The first radical change to the genre came in times of war.

Between 1990 and 1991, a lot of these artists served their part in the rebellion against Mali armed forces, and in that period, the music and the lyrics adopted the political ferocity of the people – their fight for freedom, cultural and political independence, as well as the journey to a happier and more secure life.

Armed conflict is something that has impacted the work of these artist way beyond the 2000s. In 2014, Tinariwen’s frontman Abaraybone, had to take time off his touring obligations to take care of his family through another conflict in northern Mali, which lasted for two years. During that time, Sadam Ag Ibrahim from one of the newer generation bands, Imarhan, accepted the role of a stand-in.

Still, young Tuareg artists like Ibrahim and Bombino maintain a drive to innovate and modernize the Desert Blues. Their exposure to western culture opens them to new ideas and they understand that there are more than a few ways to fight a war and impact the future of their people.

Understanding the modern age and being part of the World Culture the Tuareg have solidified their place in is a priority for them and they promote their ideas of progress, education, and modernization as a way out for the youth of their time.

It is very interesting how these themes are practically unheard of in modern popular music and yet they have found an audience amongst the western audience. As with all clashes of culture, both sides tend to take away something new and positive from the said contact.

If you are wondering just how much education means to these young artists, look no further than the fact that Bombino’s latest album, Azel, shares the name of a small desert village in the north of Nigeria where the first primary school was founded.

Tinariwen Live at Womad:

The Desert Blues is a music inspired by a people’s struggles and, as with all things that are rooted in tradition, its progress is slow but steady. It is great pressure for any artist to meld the spirit of a people into his or her work, and throughout the years, the “Ishumar” have been able to do this with astonishing results, regardless of their lack of suitable conditions, education, transport, money, or any other infrastructure used to promote modern music. It is a music that has been branded by pure force of will, perseverance, and love.

The Tuareg, coincidentally also known as “The Blue People” due to their traditional blue garb, took blues and made it part of their history, their heritage, and their vision for the future. In the middle of the scorching Sahara desert, a music evolved, invigorated and inspiring, to light a beacon for the new generations.


Aleksandar Ilic
Aleksandar Ilic
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Aleksandar Ilic is an experienced blogger and ghost writer who has experience with a lot of different subjects which range from construction, music, gaming, environmentalism and so on. As a former student of the English Language and Literature Department, at the University of Nis, Serbia with a particular interest in literature he can adapt his writing to any style while making the content seem natural to native speakers. His love for music led him to start playing in a band when he was in high school and he plays the guitar to this day. He is also an enthusiast for online PvP games and a great fan of epic fiction.

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