Tag Archives: tamasheq

Year of the Toyota Land Cruiser (Y.T.L.C.)

Historically, musicologists lacked the capability to record audio. Songs were transcribed either in Western musical notation or some peculiar form of transcription. Both forms suffered from inevitable selection bias as to what was or was not recorded (or able to be recorded in the confines of the transcription method, which may not take into count nuances in rhythm, the force by which a note is struck, etc.) as well as being cumbersome and inaccessible to those not trained in music reading. The advent of recording devices solved these difficulties – enabling the perfect reproduction of the said event, at least in the sonic realm.

While tramping around with a microphone, it is often easy to focus on the music being produced. Sahelian musicians, particularly the modern musicians (here I would note that all musicians are modern – something distinctly different from a traditional music maker who is often bound to a specific title and role) will gladly perform for a Westerner for a myriad of reasons that should be rather obvious. It can be easy to forgo the other variety of sound that is unique and probably endangered.

The Kel Adrar dialect of Tamasheq, spoken by only around 270,000 people, does not seem to be in danger of disappearing; though certainly much of the rich vocabulary is likely to vanish as the nomads leave the desert and settle into urban centers.* But besides the work of language preservation, there are some other bizarre curiosities of the desert such as Tinfusain (TIN-foo-sain). A type of story telling, sometimes improvised, it demonstrates to the non-Tamasheq speaker at least the sound of Tamasheq and a distinguishable rhyming meter.

Poetry, Tinfusain

Another of these strange/beautiful things is humming/song/sound. Known as “bel-lu-wel” which I’ve heard as well on some of Francois Borels’ recordings in Niger, it’s explained to me as something for children.

Belluwel 1
Belluwel 2

Accompanying the seemingly limitless vocabulary for animals which occupy much of the time of the Kel Adrar (the proverbial Eskimos’ seven words for snow) is a menagerie of sounds used to both call and disperse animals:

Goat call
Cow, camel, mutton, donkey (call and disperse)
Calling kids to eat acacia

Digging around the old archives of sound recordings, as I’m oft to do, I happened across this nugget. Recorded in 1939 by John and Ruby Lomax, it shows a Texas gentleman demonstrating how to call a hog. Listening to this, I would wonder how pedestrian and common this sound was at one time and how few Texan inhabitants know this today. The sound probably exists now only in some dusty archive (or some metaphorically corner of the internet). But it’s comforting somehow to know that it exists.

* As well as the written version of the language which uses an ancient script known as Tifinagh. The mostly vowel-less alphabet differs drastically between regions with variations in letters within 100 kilometers. Again, the alphabet is on the verge of extinction due to a Malian ban on teaching it in the schools and inability of Tuareg intellectuals to arrive on a mutually agreeable Tifinagh.

Pen drawing by Ibrahim Zouga (ag.ibrahimdessin@yahoo.fr)

That ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it…

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.

Koma and Attaye, two acoustic guitars in Kidal

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.

Interview with Initriy and Tahieat (French)

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?

Abba and Ahmedou Ag with acoustic guitar, Timbouctou

Sarid Ag and Doni with electric guitar, Kidal

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Griots.

While Tuareg rock (Desert Blues, i.e. Tinariwen) is the most known form of Tamashek music abroad, traditional guitar still has a strong place in the North. The traditional guitar is found throughout West Africa, for Peuls, Sonrai, Maures, Tuareg, Sarakoles – respectively named Hodou, Koubour, Tidinit, Teherdent or Hardine (and a four stringed version known as Gambare or Jeli Ngoni for the Bambara).

There are two sizes of the guitar; both are the same form – a three stringed lute of wood hollow body. The guitar is fretless, and the strings are bound to the neck by a wrapped bands of elastic. The larger, with a deeper resonance, is used for “listening” while the smaller, with a brighter and tinnier sound embodies a more lively sound, suitable for dancing. Amplification is achieved with the standard microphone of West Africa – a transducer microphone furnished from the Casio watch. The guitarist sits with a knee bent the guitar held between the legs, a seemingly acrobatic position (photo needed!).

Ali Ag Mooman is a griot from Timbouctou. While the griots still hold a strong role in society (no marriage would be possible without one), they are often marginalized in the market. The traditional music is not sought after with the fervor as the modern sounds.

Ali plays some songs while his brother explains (in French, translations below).


“This is in the desert, there is a group of guitarists that had lost their route, and they played this song for 20 days. Adernibah in Tamashek is people who are lost in the desert. It is a song known in the entire world.”

Two Songs

“This is the first song of the Tuareg. It’s called “Yona”. The beginning of the (Tuareg) guitar, this is it!”


“This is from a grand leader, called Hawadine.”


“This is called y’addi. This is the song uniquely for the Tuareg. If there is a war, this song is played. It’s like a drug, this song, and if they hear it they march straight!”

Lastly, a recording of Ali Ag Mooma (thardint), Moussa (Calabass), and myself (guitar) in an evening soiree/cassette recording, performed at his house by the “Gare Goundam.” As the night progresses, all the neighbors trickle in, drawn by the buzzing of the guitar – the best promotion, and how most soirees are “advertised” in the desert towns and the nomad ‘acampaments.’

This is a popular song titled Chebibah, which means “the youth” in Arabic. It was originally composed by an Algerian, but is a standard for Tamashek guitar.


A million and one stars

The desert north of the river Niger is a scrubby dry place. Along the border with Mauritanian and Mali, there are a mixture of Maurs, Berbiche, and Tamashek (Tuareg). I meet a group of Kalashnikov carrying youths (military). The zone is in a state of continuous tension, as rebel raids have been frequent and recent as a few months ago. There is a clear division between the Bambara and the Tamashek officers, even though this is likely to be denied.

Ag Said singing independence songs in the truck

I stay a few days in Gargando, a tiny and unassuming village, known in the region primarily for it’s brackish water. The youth have come back for vacation. In the late evening, we sit around and play songs on my guitar.

Night Soiree with youth

Night Soiree 2

Night Soiree 3

During the day, the heat is too oppressive to move. Later, by the afternoon, there is millet to pound and cows to feed. But there is lot of time to sit around too and play with the microphone.

Young girl raps (in tamashek)

Unknown song

At night, under the stars, the old bearded patriarch Abdullahi tells me, in a deep cinematic voice: “In America you sleep in five star hotels. Here in the desert, we have a million and one.” And his laugh bellows out over the white sand.