The Sahara is an overlooked cultural hotbed of many things, namely hotbeds, but emerging from the dust swirl of the golden desert in more recent times is some of today’s best guitar music. Sadly, living under the cultural rock of the west, the most punk rock paradigm on Earth remains little known on a global scale. Hopefully, this rundown can shed some light on a new sound explosion heavily drenched in historic overtones. If you thought the snarling Sex Pistols were iconoclastic rebels, then wait till you get a load of these desert dwellers!
More importantly, than that pithy intro might suggest, however, it is also one of the most vital emergent scenes in pop-culture history. Whilst the world of music is a collaborative melee, and it could certainly be said that without global influences like Ravi Shankar, we wouldn’t have psychedelia and so on, what sets Saharan music aside is that it comes from unchartered territory in every which way. The fact that the scene is a pioneering frontier that captures an almost monolithic past colliding with the uncertain presentiment of climate change means that the music’s significance is not psychosomatic, nebulous or ascertained after the fact. The music is a bold invocation of a future that is likely to affect a billion people directly. Yet, it offers a glimmer of glistening hope from this glum situation.
The music in question is often referred to as Saharan Blues, a term in which the word ‘blues’ is doing a lot of work. There is no place on Earth quite as befitting of the blues as the North African region of the Sahara. It is a stretch of land where the first adjective to come to mind is ravaged; ravaged by the blistering sun, increasing climate-driven desertification, colonialism, then post-colonial disorder, socio-economic divides, political unrest, and many more horrors that I will leave out for fear of only creating further despair. However, as always, where despair resides, the tonic of music follows, and the great cultural boon of life has certainly not deserted the Saharan people.
Whilst the music produced today may well have roots that reach back to African folk traditions and as such pretty much the beginning of man, the crystalising moment for this latest fuzzy incarnation began in earnest in 1979 with the band Tinariwen. The band encapsulated the rictus sound captured when the wandering autonomous existence of the Tuareg people entered a new post-colonial urban age.
The story of Tinariwen sadly serves as a tragic tableau for how the desert sound came to be. If there was ever any doubt about how unrest rules the roost for the world’s most hardy residents, then the tale of frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib should dispel it for good. Aged four, he witnessed his own father’s execution by Malian Military officials. Most of his days thereafter were spent in Algerian refugee camps. In these camps, he saw a western film in which a cowboy played the guitar and was so spellbound with wonder that he decided to craft one of his own using a water can, a stick, and some fishing wire. Somehow such a rudimentary start eventually produced Hendrix-like results.
Hendrix, incidentally, is a fitting comparison not only stylistically but because it was Jimi along with Dire Straits that proved to be the prominent western influences that spread through the North African region, captivating an audience of would-be rock stars therein and spawning a generation of genuine psychedelic sultans of swing.
The music itself is a strange yet easily listenable style — an invigorating mix of Knopfler-inspired clean arpeggio soundscapes along with early 70’s blues-rock stylings. These modern western influences are inexorably interwoven into traditional African folk rhythms, with melodies driving the songs and limited chord changes. The heavy presence of hammer-on hammer-off techniques is influenced as much by the likes of Dire Straits as it is by the playing of traditional instruments like the Saz, perhaps the best example coming in the form of Niger’s cooler than cool guitar wizard Mdou Moctar.
The sound of Saharan Blues, however, is partly down to the aforementioned abiding influences on the region, but also the soul of its people. It is a culture that endured for century’s and now finds itself once more standing amidst the uncertainty of shifting terrain. This hardship has a fundamental influence not only over the genesis of the music but also the sound itself. Thus, to discuss the musicology only takes you halfway there when describing a band like Songhoy Blues, because behind their instrumentation is a story that explains the playing. Intrinsic to the melodic guitar riffing is the history of the Tuareg ways, from surly poetic verse to the exultation of a searing 3-minute guitar solo, the music now beginning to make a mark on the Western world is the culmination of an entire culture.
The Tuareg people have existed for centuries, bound not by borders but a shared nomadic culture and the language of Tamasheq. However, as colonialism collapsed, and independence became widespread in the region in the ‘60s, the traditional Tuareg territory became divided, spreading the people over 5 national boundaries, and with division came conflict and increasing marginalisation. The multifaceted threats to a traditional existence have now become so perfuse that for many it is an untenable way of life. Hoards of youngsters, therefore, chose an alternative path, seeking refuge and hope in the figurative promised lands of the north, beyond the failing desert. Many of those young Tuareg wayfarers find themselves in urban areas of Libya and Algeria in a state of alienation and destitution. This earned them the nickname ‘Ishumar’ which translates as something like a derogatory term for ‘unemployed’. Many more are likely to follow in their footsteps as the region’s climate, hostile but stable for thousands of years, suddenly begins to change, creating a growing number of climate refugees. One billion people are likely to suffer from this fate, and, with them, thousands of years’ worth of discreet culture.
But, as always, there is hope in the music. Like the hip hop explosion from marginalised and socio-economically deprived regions of the USA, the young Tuareg people of North Africa repurposed the derogatory ‘Ishumar’ tag applied to them, in fact, embraced this bestowment, using it to form the most recent narrative in their cultures changing landscape. They used it to embolden a youth revolution of their own. A revolution of music that subtly eviscerated the modern banners of enforced bureaucracy through the subversive pacificism of transcendent sound. It has offered exultation and cognizance of the pains of a persecuted people and championed the spirit of the unconquerable nomadic soul of old, not so much new, more so a revolutionary revitalising of cultural honour in a modernising world. This musical blossoming from the area hardest hit by geopolitical and climate enforced change shows that although cultures may be forced to transition, the predicament can still be transfigured into something beautiful that empowers an identity that could otherwise be lost.
Many of these early Ishumar refugees, like the original Tuareg band Tinariwen, left home and found employment in former Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi’s Saharan Military Regiment. It was during this time in training camps that the new Tuareg sound would flower from the marriage of exposure to western influences and principles, the trading of musical ideas between the men, and the very act of performing in such settings. They would often sit around and jam under the chandelier firmament of the Saharan stars, implicating new western rock sounds in songs about home soaked in traditional poetry, with the group en masse providing the rhythm section, trying to replicate the tende drum sounds that women would play at celebrations back home. A home that now seemed so distant in every which way.
Political situations would change over the years with the Tuareg trying to ascertain and assert their own place amidst the turmoil and unrest that surrounded them, but it was in these early days that the music scene took hold and allowed for the first recordings to take place. These tapes would fit into the nomadic tradition of their creators in their own allegorical way, traversing miles over the desert sands in canvas backpacks to far-flung encampments that band members once called home. The tapes were the sound of excitement and hope tempered with loss and longing, seeding the next generation who were inspired not only by the music but also the elucidation of new ideals and an identity moving forward. The poetry of the songs captures a spiritual sense of home as infinite as the constellations of stars under which the music was conceived. This was both liberating and emboldening for the youth that it inspired.
One such band would be Les Filles de Illighadad, fronted by the Tuareg’s first female guitarist, Fatou Seidi Ghali. Such has been the uptake in Saharan music and the reinvigorated mobilisation of an entire culture, the most nomadic people on Earth, in the shape of her band, incredibly found themselves wandering into Washington D.C., with guitars tucked under their arms to perform at the US Library of Congress. Wherein Ghali described the incorporation of the traditional female tende drum with guitar sounds as a way of, “asserting the power of women to innovate using the roots of traditional music.” Iggy Pop even featured on the song ‘Sahara’ by Songhoy Blues singing, “it’s a genuine culture, no Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Proving that from incredibly humble beginnings music always has the potential to defy the odds.
This music also helps to dispel a notion often upheld in the western world that those suffering through hardships enforced upon them are perpetually in despair. These bands stand as testimony to a defiant hope and offer a joyous illumination that our fates are not bound by external circumstance. As the west currently reconciles our own enforced hardships, with a bit of luck Saharan Blues signifies a look at how the future might sound. The songs are both a poetic lamentation of all that is wrong and a celebration of all that is right and everything else worth fighting for. Though the more convenient narrative is to portray these musicians as music’s true rebels with a guitar under one arm and some liberating weapon under the other, their rebellion is as metaphorical and multifaceted as any musical movement. At its heart, it is simply a peaceful way to retain some order and take charge of their own fate and history, in a soaring declaration that this shimmering sound is our story and the transformative space that it creates is where we truly live.
Remarkably, where free expression exists in a fragile flux forever threatened by the constant oppression that intrudes upon it, one of the worlds most talented guitar scenes has spawned. The music is the sound of both defiant liberation and a homily on a hexed existence. Saharan blues is the story of an entire people to this point and their fortitude in embracing an uncertain future. The Saharan guitar scene is not just a paragon of genuine talent, but genuine Rock & Roll.
Just as Rock & Roll was the fuzz-pedalled piece of gilded transfiguration that came out of the atrocious adversities of America’s plantations, Sharan blues is the soaring sound of a people bloodied but unbowed. Within the ever-expansive desert of hardships, the human sanctity that the music offers is a minuscular but mighty oasis of hope, comfort and bliss, inviolable to all that may come.