Tag Archives: tuareg music

petit à petit

Over the past few weeks I’ve been back in Niger working on a film project in Agadez with Jérome Fino from the Marseille based collective l’improbable. In addition, we’ve been shooting some short music segments, many of which have now been edited and uploaded – including Group Inerane, the Cure Salee, Mdou Moctar, and more, available here.

“Il y laisse de jouer.”

Another routine evening, we assemble inside Ahmed’s compound of chest high mud walls, sitting on the light mats thrown down in the dusty yard. Two or three guitars are picked up and traded around, the flickering light of the fire just barely bright enough to make out the shadowy figures who all remain relatively silent in the breaks between songs. Silent, except for my persistent questions, which they’ve become accustomed to: “Who wrote that song? What’s that called? Where is that from?”

In the regional tuareg guitar music scene there is a strong surviving folk tradition. While music may occupy a place in recorded and played back form, songs are still learned and collected by traveling musicians. Incidentally, the songs have their own stories – how they were learned, where they were learned, and then the tales of the songs themselves: their creators and the stories behind them. Often tragic, or near tragic, as the musician is forced to leave his craft for love or family, these common themes are as important as the song itself.

The following recordings are from a guitarist known as “Bebe” a childhood nickname that stuck with him. Like many of the young Tamashek, he spent his youth in exile and his later years traveling about the desert regions of Algeria, Mali, and Libya, in the nouvelle-ishumar existence.

“N ca, n ca, ca ces pour uh, le, ce pour dugah dugah…c’est un noir, dugaduga s’appelle, joue le guitar la les arabes la…abodit…il e fou, le tip que joue le morsel la, il e fue! Il e fue, c’est un fou, mais il joue. Walahi je te jue. Nooo, dugaduga? Il e forte. Il joue bien! Il e son group.”

“And this, and this, this here is for, this is for Dugah Dugah…he’s a black, Duga Duga he’s called, plays the guitar of the Arabs there…abodit…he’s crazy, this guy that plays the song, he’s crazy! He’s crazy, he’s crazy but he plays. I swear to God he plays. Noooo, Duga Duga? He’s strong. He play’s good! Him and his group!”*

bebe – dugaduga

“ishilan n tenere…le jour de la desert. C’est un Tamashek blanc, ver a un Djanet la. Ca pour Oun-tas-ili. Le tip il ya n de Tasili…le fronteir entre Algerie… le morset il e fait seulementil, apres il e laissez le guitar. Il jouer, il lodge a la Sahara. Son pere il ya beacoup de chameaux. Beacoup! Il y ri. Il e dit faux laisse ca, tu e pas un forgeron qui fais ca. Tu e pas un griot. Il y laisse. Il e a Tassili, le guitar c’est fini. Le chameaux. A dit ah, comme il s’appelle? Le gen que…le mutton. Le mutton tak tagila. A cote…il dor, il son fatigue! C’est ca il e dit. Son fatigue. Le gen des animaux, tak tagila.”

“Ishilan n-Tenere…the day of the desert. He’s a white Tamashek, near Djanet there. This for Oun-Tas-ili. The guy he’s from Tasili…the border between Algeria…the song he just made, afterwards he left the guitar. He playes, he lived in the Sahara. He’s father has lots of camels. Lots! He’s rich. He (his father) said, leave this, you’re not a blacksmith that does this. Your not a griot. He left. He’s in Tassili, the guitar is done. The camels. A said…what’s it called? The people that….the sheep. The sheep tak tagila. Next to…he sleeps, he’s tired. That’s what he says. They’re tired! The people of the animals, tak tagila.”

bebe – ishilan n-tenere

“Ca. Ca c’est pour un group avant Algerie. Avant!” “Ces temp ne pas des artists beacoup. Maintentant le tipe joue pas guitar, c’est fini. Il a marrie. S’appelle Salah bin Omar. Ca ces un Tamashek noir de Algerie. Il e marrie, e les gen, le pere de femme, il y dit laisse joue. Tu vais marrie la fille. Il e laissez de jouer, il y marrie la fille la. Il joue pas maintenant. Il entren les enfants le guitar seulemente. Donne le cour de guitar, mais il jouer pas.”

“This. This is for a group before Algeria. Before! This time there wasn’t a lot of artists. Now this guy doesn’t play guitar, it’s over. He’s married. He’s called Salah bin Omar. This is a black Tamashek from Algeria. He married, the people, the father of the women, he said to leave playing. You’re going to marry the girl. He left playing, he married the girl there. He doesn’t play now. He teaches the guitar only. Gives the guitar course, but he doesn’t play.”

bebe – transcribed text

bebe – salah bin omar

*The transcriptions demonstrate how this “folk” data is recorded, and the ensuing difficulties of a mutually second language (French transcribed in most appropriate phonetic manner, and direct English translation).


Teyti anounces isswat

In the rainy season, pooled water gathers and flows into seasonal rivers. They follow the same paths, snaking deep gulleys carved into the hard earth from the many years. The area around these gullies is flourishing with trees. Craggy vicious trees with spines, but relative to the plain desert it is rather like a forest. With the first rains, parents warn their children to stay clear of the gullies as the small trickles will grow into torrents of mud and sticks. And the head of the stream is often preceded by tumbling snakes.

Teyti, Aki, and Towti

Maroniya and Sele

It’s here in the forest amongst the pools that the families gather for the rains. Most of the year they live in small family units, a few tents of extended family, far from neighbors to maximize the yield, grazing their animals on the besieged and sparse vegetation. Thus, with the rains, a surplus of water and food, the animals giving abundance of milk, the families coming together is a moment of relaxation and celebration.

Isswat is an activity relegated to the night. After the stars have come out, the families have finished dinner, the youth sneak off. Perhaps one will begin playing a tende. The other young and unmarried youth will hear this, the distant low pounding of the drum. Sneaking off to some locale away from the camp, the youth assemble.

The music of the issawat is characterized by the sigadah, the low humming of the men, which provides a bass, and the woman who will sing the melody. The songs are often provocative, songs of love, albeit it in a very coy and covert manner. Issawat is also the opportunity for the youth to meet and flirt, and in the periphery of the performance, the young boys and girls whisper to one another.

Hoymada as performed by Halima Walet Mohamed, Kidal, Mali


Issawat is not merely the music, but the name given for the activity. In general, the music is a type of non instrumental symphony, where one singer leads with a melody and the others sing a bass, accompanied by clapping, stomping, or drum playing. There are similar types of tuareg music found that share these traits, such as el medh (Recordings of Isswat as performed in Bourem


I once heard a story about the family in Djounhan. Tigadahasit’s older brother once fell in love with a girl from another camp. She had come to Ijuhrer for the rains, but staying far across the forested plain. Realizing the brevity of the season and the possibility that another suitor would arrive in his absence, he was determined to arrive every night for the issawat. Late at night, and dressed in the finest clothes, he would walk out into the dark. At every flooded gully, he would disrobe and wade through the dark mud, carrying his clothing above his head, dressing on the other side, just until he arrived. Here, he would rest until the early morning, the long journey home under the lightening sky.

Root Down


Imagine the brousse like a rich tapestry laid out over the desert. This is not the empty desert of bleached sand, the “tilemsi” as it is called in Tamashek, not the vast stretch wasteland where no plant grows, not the sea of alternating sand dunes and lush green date palm oases. The desert is not even called desert by the inhabitants, but “brousse” (or bush). It is an area where grass abounds in after the rains, where spindly trees disguise the tents, where craggy rock mountains peak over the horizon.

The brousse is thickly inhabited. Each section has a name and a history. The people are mobile, like all nomads, but not overly so. There’s water in the rainy season, and forgiving the years of drought, enough pasturage to support goats, mutton, and cows.

One of the trees that one associates with the brousse is the acacia (“tamat”), a thin twisty tree of numerous white nail-like spines. The tree also bears litte yellow flowers that are fed to the young goats. The sap, tinhoost, is picked off in the dry season and eaten like candy. The root of the acacia is used to make the Tuareg flute. The difficult part is finding a section of straight root. The piece is placed into the sand over which a fire has been blazing. The heat seperates the outside bark from the center wood, and after substantial twisting, the outer layer of wood is pulled free. Holes are cut along the shaft. The inner wood is reserved to store the flute, which is quite fragile, being only the outer bark of root.

The Tamashek flute is known as the “ta-kha-nit”. It’s a transverse flute, similar to the flute found in Mauritania and Senegal (and across the Sahel). Traditionally the flute is associated with herders, those with an ample amount of time, tramping around the brousse with their sheep and goats. Today it is still a common brousse instrument, something to play with friends in the evening.

Harim Batem

“This is a song for a man named Harim Batem. It’s a type of song called “tar-li-lit”, a type of praising poetry made in honor of someone. Harim Batem was a man from a long time ago. He was a ‘broussiere’, not a warrior. It’s not always war here. He was someone who was strong and brave, he could do any type of work assigned to him. He was popular with the women…well, it’s the women who write the poetry after all…”

Tahalun tahsun

“This is a song that tells the story of a herder who went out the pasture, and one of his cows had an accident and broke his leg. All the cows left, but the other cow remained, trying to limp along to follow the others home. Sometimes the music is fast, then slow, and sometimes it stops. This is the creation of the song, the story of the cow.”



The flute is made from the desert. And it invites one to imagine the low wistful hum as the brousse itself, the wind whistling through the acacia. In the evening at the camp in Djounhan, not an hours travel from Kidal ville but already a world apart, the sun is setting. The children gather the animals, tying up the young camels. The girls wander amongst the trees, looking for firewood. The sun descends into the band of dusty horizon and a cool wind blows.

Sunset at camp