Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tishoumaren: The Desert Blues of the Tuareg Nomads

"I felt this was the music I'd been looking for all my life." - Robert Plant

     The Kel Tamasheq people, known collectively as the Tuareg nomads, have wandered the Saharan Desert for millennia.  Long under siege from poverty, drought, and political unrest, the Tuareg have cultivated a fiercely independent culture and their own unique musical voice.  Over the last forty years, their style of rebellious guitar-based desert blues, called Tishoumaren, has emerged. This music flows from the same ancient African wellspring whose sounds and rhythms crossed the Atlantic and developed into the American Blues, but the Tuareg style is its own independent strain. It is steeped in the Tuaregs' ancient musical traditions, meant to convey images of the never-ending Saharan horizon, the shifting sand dunes, and the swaying rhythm of the camel caravans' movements.  But in the 1970s,  as a result of violent political turmoil and geographic displacement, the Tuareg youth plugged in electric guitars for the first time, took these traditional sounds, and merged them together with the Western rock, reggae, and psychedelic music that was infiltrating Africa to create something new.  Today, these Tishoumaren musicians are superstars among the Tuareg people. Their music has been copied and traded on bootlegged cassette tapes or, more recently, as mp3's via cellphone memory cards, throughout Africa.  In recent years, Tishoumaren music has permeated the international world music scene, and has been steadily growing in respect and popularity while adamantly holding onto its individuality. These bands sing in the Tamasheq language with their unconventional vocal melodies, and refuse to bend their sound to a more dominant Western-styled approach. This is who they are, and this is how they sound. Take it or leave it. From the legendary Tinariwen, to the rising guitar hero Omar "Bombino" Moctar, and to the legion of bands following in their wake, Tishoumaren music expresses the lives and landscape of the Tuareg, informs the outside world of their struggles, and acts as a rebel yell as well as a call for peace.  

Tuareg man, 1936

     No one knows exactly when the Tuareg first inhabited the Sahara. When the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about them in the 5th century BC, the Tuareg were already an ancient people controlling vital trade routes through Africa.  Their massive camel caravans brought valuable salt, gold, and other rare goods to the rest of the world, while helping to disseminate culture, art, and music.  But the once vast ancestral Tuareg homeland is no more, carved up by French colonists in the early 1900s. The Tamasheq are now scattered across the borders of Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso.  This is one of the most politically volatile points on the globe, and although there are unfathomably wealthy deposits of oil and uranium under their feet, the Tuareg endure soul shattering poverty and drought on the surface. 

 man and his dog, 1967

     The name Tuareg (meaning "rebel" or, in another translation, "Abandoned by God") was given to them by the Arabs after their initial resistance to adopt Islam. Even after their conversion, though, the Tuareg remained profoundly tied to their pre-Islamic way of life. Their complex matrilineal culture still gives women power and equal rights in ways that are not only progressive in the Islamic world, but in democratized Western countries as well. Through history it was the women who were the principle performers of traditional Tuareg music and poetry, singing over a bowed 3-stringed lute and a rhythm on a tende hand drum. These traditional songs were typically about daily Tuareg life, the landscape, and the animals around them.  Although the Tuareg do not have a word for "the blues" as we know it, their closest translation is a concept called "assouf," a deep loneliness or nostalgia that is at the heart of their music.  

 female Tuareg singers in Algeria

 Tuareg woman, 1917

     After the French colonists left in the 1960s,  the newly established governments cracked down on boundary crossing nomads, and the Tuareg way of life was splintered.  Young Tuareg men were either off fighting in battles, or they were forced into exile, oftentimes in a new urban environment that dramatically clashed with their rural way of life.  By the late 1970s, the seeds for the Tishoumaren sound would be planted as a group of young Tuaregs would find that their new brand of music was an even more powerful weapon of rebellion than a Kalashnikov rifle.


     Tinariwen, the godfathers of the Tishoumaren sound, was formed in 1979 by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib.  Living a life in exile since witnessing his father's execution by the Malian government at the age of four, Ag Alhabib found solace in his own handmade stringed instruments. Later, while living in an Algerian refugee camp, Ag Alhabib was introduced to the guitar.  It was in these refugee camps that Tuareg men, separated from their women and their traditions, seriously began to play music on their own, and Ag Alhabib studied from those around him.  These musicians were inspired by the great Malian bluesmen Ali Farka Touré and Boubacar Traore and used their style of music as a departure point. At the same time, the music of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Bob Marley, and, unexpectedly, Dire Straits was being passed around the camps by the Tuareg youth.  This deeply influenced Ag Alhabib's new musical ideas.  He gathered together a collective of like-minded musicians who merged the traditional Tuareg music with Western rock and reggae, and when they plugged electric guitars into generator-powered amplifiers and began to play out in the desert, the Tishoumaren sound was born.  

     For a time, Ag Alhabib and members of Tinariwen were a part of Libyan ruler Mohammar Gaddafi's Tuareg militia, but soon deserted when they learned of his ulterior motives, and joined the growing Tuareg rebellion to reclaim their ancestral homeland.  By this point, Tinariwen's music had evolved around a powerful, socially conscious message for the Tuareg people, and urged others to join their cause.  Authorities considered their music dangerous and Tinariwen was driven underground.  With no formal studio recordings or albums to sell, Tinariwen would record a live set for anyone who came to them with a blank cassette.  These tapes were passed, traded, and duplicated throughout the region, and their brand of rebel music resonated with the young Tuaregs as the rebellion grew.


     By the early 1990s, a peace accord was struck, and Tinariwen was now able to travel the world and perform outside of their homeland for the first time.  In 2001, they helped organize the inaugural Festival in the Desert and recorded their first album with renowned producer/guitarist Justin Adams, best known for his African-influenced work with Robert Plant.  From there, Tinariwen's international fame quickly grew, to great critical acclaim.  They have received major music awards around the world and still continue to tour, bringing their message to an even wider audience than they could ever have imagined.


     Singer/songwriter Omar "Bombino" Moctar is the leader of the new Tishoumaren movement, and is the first internationally recognized Tuareg guitar hero. He is a product of the first Tuareg generation that grew up around Tishoumaren music, where Tinariwen was a force of nature in their communities shining a light for others to follow.  Bombino's music builds upon the Tinariwen foundation but he elevates the sound to an entirely different level.  His songs are deeply hypnotic, still rooted in the Tuareg rhythms, but have an even more rock-based groove behind it all. The real magic, though, lies in his transcendental, seemingly effortless guitar solos.  His fingers move with amazing fluidity across the frets and the notes ring out into the ether, building a repetitive trance that can only be made in the wide open expanses of the desert.  Bombino possesses a sound unlike anyone else out there.

     Bombino was born in 1980 in Niger near Agadez, the country's largest city, but drought and civil unrest forced him out, Instead, he grew up with his grandmother in a refugee camp in Tamanrasset, Algeria.  Here, his cousins introduced him to the guitar and a lifelong obsession took hold.  As a teenager, he traveled to seek out his uncle, a well known Tuareg painter, to obtain a guitar of his own and began to take lessons from a Tuareg master.  Soon he was playing in Tuareg bands, and it was then that he was given the nickname "Bombino," Italian for "little child."  While working as a goat herder in Libya, Bombino, already heavily influenced by Tinariwen, studied the guitar work of Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and began to cook up his own personal style.  He was recorded for the first time in 2004 by a Spanish documentary crew, and his first album, Agamgam, was released.  These songs are acoustic-based original compositions, usually accompanied only by handclaps and a rhythm pounded on a traditional water drum, and are recorded around a campfire under the desert sky.  Even the sounds of the animals can be heard in the background.  Agamgam is a fascinatingly raw artifact, capturing Bombino's songs, stripped down to the core, just as his legend was beginning to grow.  These songs have become popular standards to the Tuareg youth today.

     In 2006, Bombino first toured the United States as a member of Tidawt, and played lead guitar on an African-inspired version of the Rolling Stones' classic "Hey Negrita" with Ron Wood and Charlie Watts (and Mick Jagger on harmonica) for a Stones world music compilation.  Back home, bootlegged cassettes of Agamgam was being voraciously traded and a devoted fan base was forming. It seemed as if Bombino's career as a musician was finally lifting off. But when Bombino returned home, the government of Niger had outlawed the guitar, declaring it as a tool of Satan, and soon the Tuareg rebellion had reignited. Government forces responded by brutally cracking down on the Tuareg people.  Bombino joined the rebels, but when two of his bandmates were captured and executed, he went into exile in Burkina Faso.

    Meanwhile, documentary filmmaker Ron Wyman was in the Sahara piecing together a film on the Tuareg when he became entranced by the sounds coming from his driver's tape deck.  When he learned the name of the musician, Wyman tracked Bombino down and his film, Agadez: The Music and the Rebellion, veered into a new direction.  This documentary captures the moment after the Tuareg laid down their arms and Bombino was finally able to return to Agadez.  With special permission from the Sultan, Bombino gave a special performance under the Great Mosque, the first performance of its kind, to celebrate their newly found freedom.  Wyman assisted in the recording of Bombino's first official studio recordings and the album Agadez was released. This time around, the sound was deepened with rhythm guitar and bass, with drums as well. The record was immediately recognized by the world music community, and Bombino's music began to spread even further.

     In 2012, his music reached Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. Auerbach invited Bombino and his band mates to Nashville where he would produce their third album, Nomad.  This album brought the Tishoumaren sound even further into Westernized rock without ever losing its spirit.  The production is a little more stoney, the guitars are fuzzier, the bass a little gnarlier, and the drums are more forceful, but the center of Bombino's sound and message remains the same.  Nomad was released on Nonesuch Records and became  Bombino's breakout hit, debuting at #1 on the Billboard World Music chart. Bombino toured the world where his infectious music, stunning guitar work, and exotic stage presence endeared him to all who witnessed it.

     His most recent album, Azel, was recorded in Woodstock, New York with David Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors and pulls back from the psychedelic fuzziness of Nomad. Bombino brings his sound closer to its roots while adding a more prominent reggae influence, creating a hybrid he calls "Tuareggae."  The guitars are clearer now, and his vocals are more upfront rather than obscured in the haze. 

     The music of Bombino is built on a driving need to help empower his people. He acts as a bridge to the Tuareg past, to keep his people connected as they navigate the modern world, while serving as an ambassador for the rest of us to understand his culture.  And though most of the world cannot understand his lyrics, his determined and unyielding optimism, born in one of the harshest environments on earth, shines through his music and the sound of his guitar.


     Tamikrest might have the most psychedelic sound of the Tishoumaren bands. Compared to the shining beam of light of Bombino's sound, Tamikrest is far more atmospheric with everything enveloped in a smoky desert haze. The heavy influence of Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour on guitarist Ousmane Ag Mossa creates a ridiculously dank strain of desert rock that should please any serious guitar aficionado. The musicianship is top shelf, with stunning production that gives the music a rich, organic feel.  Their songs are often more melancholic, tapping deep into the Tuareg's concept of "assouf," that feeling of desperate loneliness and longing.

     During the Great Drought of the 1980s, while Tinariwen was first bringing their message of rebellion to the Tuareg people, bandleader/guitarist Ousmane Ag Mossa was just being born.  He witnessed the rebellion first hand with the women and children that were left behind as the men fought or fled.  The music of Tinariwen was around him, pouring out of the speakers of boomboxes on bootlegged cassettes, and this was Ag Mossa's Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan moment.  He dedicated himself to life as a musician. During the cease fire of the 90s, Ag Mossa was able to receive a  formal musical education, an impossible dream for previous Tuareg generations.  Here he befriended Cheikh Ag Tiglia, a fellow guitarist and bassist. Political unrest forced the two musicians out and they resettled in Kidal, Mali.  An art and music school was there, established in 2001 by the Dutchess of Luxembourg, and they were able to continue their musical education.  Soon, they hooked up with percussionists Aghaly Ag Mohamedine and Ibrahim Ag Ahmed and Tamikrest was formed.  The name Tamikrest, which is Tamasheq for "junction," was adopted since every member represents the Tuareg tribe, but each came from vastly different places in different countries with different governments.  

      At the Festival in the Desert in 2008, Tamikrest formed a strong musical friendship with American musician/producer Chris Eckman.  With Eckman's outstanding production, Tamikrest has recorded three deeply psychedelic albums that push the Tishoumaren sound out even further into the cosmos, with Adagh (in 2010), Toumastin (2011), and Chatma (2013). Tamikrest uses their music to reconnect with their Tuareg culture and to bring their viewpoints to the local and international political discussion.  They are fighting for increased political representation and an improvement of basic human rights for their people, most notably on their 2009 album, Chatma.  Meaning "Sisters" in Tamasheq, this record brings attention to the harsh reality of life for the Tuareg women.  In recent years, the town of Kidal was overtaken by militant Islamic fundamentalists, and the members of Tamikrest have been forced to live in Algeria.  They continue to record and bring their music around the world to help bring attention to the dangerous situation there.

The Future of Tishoumaren

     As the Tishoumaren bands collectively take their traditional music into the future, they are not only fighting a social and political battle, but a cultural one as well.  The Tuareg youth trade large collections of music on cellphone memory cards, and a far wider range of music is now at their disposal than ever before.  Though the Tishoumaren musicians are still very popular, hip hop culture has come into the scene and the youth are increasingly less concerned with carrying on the Tuareg traditions, making their message even more urgent. As a result, the Tishoumaren sound has been evolving in new ways.

     Terakaft is a unique hybrid of the old and new guard. The band was formed in 2001 by guitarist/singer Sanou Ag Ahmed with members of the original Tinariwen line up, including his uncle Liya Ag Ablil (aka Diara).  The band is now chiefly Diara with his nephews Sanou and his younger brother Abdalla. Together, Terakaft is attempting to expand the Tishoumaren sound into something more youthful with pop influences, but with the wisdom of their elders.   


     Imarhan are a group of young Tuareg musicians from Tamanrasset, Algeria.  They are a part of the generation of Tuareg that grew up almost exclusively in the city, far away from the rural nomadic traditions. They dress in their everyday clothes rather than the traditional robes and turbans.  Still with the obvious undercurrent of Tinariwen beneath them, Imarhan brings a more diverse and urban sound to their brand of Tishoumaren.  There are Western rock influences, but there are also heavy traces of other African music, including jazz and funk, that sets Imarhan apart. 


     Mdou Moctar might be the most unusual of the young Tishoumaren artists.  His first album, Anar, features his guitar work layered over a drum machine with heavily autotuned vocals. The music is a blend of the Tishoumaren sound with Bollywood pop, and creates an almost alien sound.  Although Anar was never formally released, the recordings were passed around via cellphone memory cards throughout the region and his fame began to grow among the Tuareg youth culture.  In 2015, he starred in a Tuareg remake of Prince's Purple Rain film titled Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (aka Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It, since there is no word for purple in the Tamasheq language).  Moctar recorded and released a soundtrack for the movie in a style more in the vein of Bombino, without the electronic elements.


With the increase of Islamic fundamentalism in the region, and a changing cultural landscape as the modern technological world moves in, the Tuareg way of life might be facing its most formidable challenge yet.  But music is at the heart of the Tamasheq people, and Tishoumaren is a reflection of the their spirit and soul.  This is a people who have stared hardship in the eye for centuries, and have not only survived but pushed forward when most others would wilt from the strain. It will be fascinating to hear how the Tuareg and their sound evolve with the times, and how their music will continue to contribute to the world around them.

 Bombino with my son, Tulsa Oklahoma 2013


 a head medicine production

© 2016   brian james koschak


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