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!”*
“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.”
“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.”
*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).