Hypnotic rhythms, fiery guitar solos, evocative ballads sung by worn-out, deep voices that speak of a life of struggle and beauty.
On the dunes of the Sahara Desert, atavic music inheritance meets the power of psychedelic rock and the bonding power of blues, resulting in a powerful blend of traditions and sounds that are the epitome of the life of the nomadic people who live in the Sahel region.
Desert blues, or Tuareg rock, took the Western world by storm at the end of the 20th century when the music collective Tinariwen was broadcasted on French and UK radio stations for the first time.
Since then, the Sahara has provided us with a seemingly endless list of artistes revisiting the sound of the desert in a contemporary key.
This music genre has become the echo chamber of the voice of the Tuareg people: a semi-nomadic ethnic group spread across Lybia, Niger, Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso.
By reinterpreting indigenous musical styles and enriching them with electric guitars, they brought to life a sound that’s both unheard of in the Western music realm and primaeval in its approach and mesmerizing effect.
Like many, I discovered desert blues through Tinariwen, the band that defined the genre and the primary source of inspiration for the new generations of Tuareg rock artistes.
Today, dozens of bands are pushing the boundaries of desert blues and exploring new sonic realms, always rooted in the traditions and themes that made this genre so unique.
Let’s take a look at the history of this revolutionary African rock genre.
ORIGINS OF DESERT BLUES
Ali Farka Toure, Image: Tagles/Wikimedia Commons
Before desert blues, there was Ali Farka Toure. The legendary Malian bluesman has been a source of inspiration for generations of African musicians and the first to successfully blend traditional Malian music with Western influences, particularly African American blues and folk music.
Toure’s music crossed the Mediterranean Sea in the late 1970s when several French record labels started distributing his works.
Later, in the mid-80s, British DJ Andy Kershaw came across one of his albums in a record store in Paris and broadcasted it on BBC Radio One. That’s when the sound of the Sahara was discovered worldwide.
Toure’s music was a crucial source of inspiration for Tinariwen, the legendary Tuareg rock band that defined this new genre more than any other.
Formed in 1979 by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Tinariwen went on to perform locally for the following 20 years in Libya and Algeria, where Ag Alhabib and other Tuareg were living in exile.
That’s when people started calling them Kel Tinariwen, Tamashek for “People of the Desert”.
The collective reached its final form in the early 80s when the bandmates based in Lybia received full military training (as ordered by Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi) and met other Tuareg musicians living there.
In the early 1990s, and back in Mali, the collective started gaining popularity throughout North Africa, performing in front of Tuareg communities spread across the Sahara Region.
Ultimately, Tinariwen’s popularity reached the other side of the Mediterranean, first in France, where they collaborated with the ethnic group Lo’Jo, and then worldwide, with the release of their first official album in 2001, The Radio Tisdas Sessions.
GLOBAL RECOGNITION FOR DESERT BLUES
Bombino, Image: Steven Pisano from Brooklyn, NY, USA/Wikimedia Commons
Since the early 2000s, more and more Tuareg rock bands have emerged, drawing inspiration from the originators of the style while finding their own creative formula to preserve the culture of the nomadic tribes through music.
Influenced by the powerful electric guitars of Hendrix and Jimmy Page and by the timeless traditions of their lifestyle, artistes like Mdou Moctar and Bombino emerged to carry on with the expansion of desert blues towards more Western rock territories.
Thanks to an international production also involving Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, Bombino’s second album Nomad peaked at number one on both the iTunes World Chart and Billboard World Chart.
Bombino’s latest studio album, the 2018 Deran, was nominated at the Grammy Awards for “Best World Music Album”, making him the first Nigerian to be nominated for such an award.
Tuareg songwriter Mdou Moctar has created some of the most exciting psychedelic rock compositions since the genre’s hey-days in the 1960s.
Blending decades of Western rock music with Tuareg folklore and hypnotic loops, Moctar brings to life intricate Tuareg music that feels accessible to everyone, though without compromising on the tradition and cultural value of its nomadic origins.
His latest album, Afrique Victime, was included in several end-of-year best album lists in 2021 and is a perfect mix of rock virtuosity and Saharan time signatures.
Contaminations with electronic genres also produce an innovative sound that's pushing desert blues forward.
Anana Harouna, the leader of Tuareg rock band Kel Assouf, has proven that Sahara sounds can fuse with electronic music and still reflect the history of his culture through powerful, evocative lyrics.
With a series of concerts in iconic venues in Europe, Assouf has helped expand and spread the Tuareg culture in new sonic territories.
A fantastic example of the new generation of desert blues is Tamikrest, a Malian Tuareg rock band that can combine African traditional music with Western pop and rock influences.
Formed in 2006 and strongly affected by the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s and the 2006 riots, Tamikrest aims to spread Tamasheq poetry and culture outside the Sahara Region, thanks to a unique blend of evocative lyrics and addictive Tuareg melodies.
Tamikrest, Image: Rs-foto/Wikimedia Commons
AT THE FOREFRONT OF DESERT BLUES
Finally, let's talk about one of the most influential desert blues collectives.
Formed in 2001 by former members of Tinariwen, Terakaft differentiates itself from other desert rock bands by combining two rhythm guitars that create a mesmerising blues soundscape that feels evocative and timeless.
The result is a perfect mix between the intricacies of modern Western rock compositions and the wilderness of desert blues.
From blistering guitar solos to introspective lyrics inspired by oral tradition and electronic contaminations, desert blues has been moving in different directions while maintaining its integrity and evocative power.
The energy of desert blues is a sonic representation of the strong cultural bond that connects the Tuareg people, often marginalised and living in poor conditions throughout the Sahel region.
Like African American Blues, Tuareg rock acted as a social connector that unified these semi-nomadic tribes under a single creative flag, and today, it represents one of the most vibrant rock genres and is influencing generations of musicians in Africa and beyond.
While the Tuareg time signatures and hypnotic loops are indeed unique in the music realm, the music of the Sahel region is all about recounting and sharing tales that affected the people of this region: stories of struggle, uprising, freedom and beauty.
Ali Farka Toure, “Inchana Massina (feat. Nitin Sawhney)”
Album: The Source (1992)
Tinariwen, “Oualahila Ar Tesninam”
Album: Amasskoul (2004)
Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate, “Ruby”
Album: Ali and Toumani (2010)
Album: Aratan n Azawad (2011)
Tamikrest, “Toumast Anlet”
Album: Chatma (2013)
Ahmoudou Madassane, “Akaline Akaline”
Album: Zerzura (2018)
Bombino, “Midiwan (My Friend)”
Album. Deran (2018)
Mdou Moctar, “Chismiten”
Album: Afrique Victim (2021)
Cover Credit: Carlos Leret/Unsplash
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Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.