The guitar soiree is the quintessential to the modern Tamashek. At least a few times in a week a festival will be organized — be it a marriage, a baptism, or simply a concert. As the first stars appear in the sky, the guitar can be heard wafting over the city. “Listen…” heads tilt, to ascertain the sound. “Radio? No, definitely guitar…”
The guests, the women in glittering shawls, the young men in new turbans and sporting leather jackets assemble on the ornate rugs on opposing sides. In the center lies a section a few meters squared. This is the dance floor. The first group is announced over the microphone to come forward as the band strikes a few chords, and groups of men rush forward. There is usually disagreement, as six young men stubbornly claim their place. “Three people only, please,” the announcer begs. The band waits patiently for concession. “Merci,” the announcer sighs, and the music begins. There is some bustle in the crowd of women before a few jump up. The dance is a simple two step from side to side, although it occurs on a counter beat, and the dancers dance in place, facing one another yet separated by a good meter, moving their arms about in striking poses. At some point in the song, the refrain, both sides step forward and and dance close to one another, before passing and changing sides on the square. The music ends, the six dancers rush back to their places.
The guitar soiree is the forum for Tamashek guitar music. It’s rather non participatory — after all, everyone wants to dance — but it is just as much an opportunity to be seen. The first guitar soirees came in the 1990s. Prior to that the guitar cassettes were more likely to be heard blaring throughout the speakers in Libyan military camps.
In some ways, the precedent of the guitar could be seen as the tahardint, the traditional guitar, and the takamba. The takamba is a style of tahardint with a distinctive rhythm pounded on a calabas. It is a fast sound and paradoxically a painfully slow dance. The format of the soirees are similar, but the dancing is slower, ghostly, and more eloquent.
Yet the music that probably comes closest to the guitar is iswatt. Iswatt incidentally is a non instrumental music. The sound is created by a rhythmic clapping accompanied by foot stomping, a constant low frequency male humming and grunts, and a female singing (“the five instruments of iswatt,” a friend proclaims). The crowd forms a circle and pairs of dancers enter amidst the energetic hand clapping. The dancing is fast, arms flailing, dust raising, and with billowing robes. The dancers drop to the ground and jump into the air.
If the guitar is the music of ville, isawatt, even today, continues to be a music of the brousse. In the rainy season, a few people will sneak away into the darkness, far away from the tents and begin singing. The others will hear and come together, following the echoes through the dark night. In that way at least, things are not so different. Well – maybe a little. As the Tamashek saying regarding issawat “Sin, Sin, Keratd Warhein” translates: “Two by Two, Three is Sick”. Or in other words, “two pairs at a time.”
The Tuaregs consist of a variety of tribes, stretching across the center of the Saharan desert, East of Mauritania, across Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya. In the past, the Western association was with “blue men” in the desert, the fierce resistance to colonization, the romantic myth of the desert nomad. Today it is impossible for the West to speak of Tuareg without the obligatory reference to the Tuareg guitar.
The Tamashek guitar, or “ishumar” (A French deriviation of chomeur, or “unemployed”) was borne in the rebellion. After the first rebellion, the youth that had left for Libya for military training in the war with Chad returned to Mali — without any education or opportunity.
Origins are difficult to ascertain, but Tinariwen of Tessalit, Mali are popularly considered the pioneers. The music of Tinariwen is traded across Mali, via the Tamashek. Numbering only 600,000 but stretching over thousands of kilometers — the Malian Tamashek community is like a small town, and everyone knows everyone. But the heart is definitely in the North of the country.
Ishumar guitar music is preferably played with the electric guitar (for its responsive touch, both solo and rhythm) bass, percussion (calabas, djembe, or drum kit), and singing and hand claps. It is almost always played in a pentatonic scale (familiar immediately for the “blues” component), with a droning bass note and syncopated treble that accompanies the singing. One chord is often sufficient. but with tremolos and impressive solos. A friend remarks that tremolo of “false” notes are what separate Tamashek guitar from Sonrai guitar. “It plays better with the way they speak.” And certainly, the language Tamashek is full of bent and ululated vowels, placing it closer to Arabic in sound then with its cousins to the South. While the music has certain roots in traditional Tamashek guitar, the influence of Western music (cassettes of Bob Marley and Jimmy Hendrix most substantially) cannot be ignored. And today, as is common throughout the Sahara, the favorite guitarist amongst the younger generation: Dire Straits.
Talking with a former rebel/musician: “Dire Straits is the number one guitarist for the Tamashek. If he held a concert here…no…all the Tuareg – Algeria, Libya, Niger – would come to Kidal.” Mark Knopfler, are you listening?
In Lere, Mohamed Issa, from the group Tartit, arrives on the tail of a dust storm. He is here for one night, and then departing to play in a marriage “en brousse”. Accompanied by myself and Abou, a young apprentice, we play out by the tent until the early hours.
(I should note, for aspiring guitarists – often in the Tuareg guitar and Sori guitar, the first string is tuned up to G, and plays the continuous bass)
The next day, before the dust storm tears through the down, I ask the kids to play some songs. I sing a few too – lots of requests for Akon. Heads are appearing over the wall, and by the time the mother comes home, there’s a regular concert crowd gathered.