Sounds of the Sahara (Tishoumaren Music and Desert Blues)

In the vast, barren deserts of Northern Africa, there is a musical oasis…

The Desert Blues, or Tishoumaren.

The first Tishoumaren music I heard was the song “Agrim Agadez” by Etran de L’air. I was instantly blown away by this track I stumbled upon and scrambled to find more from the artist. I wanted to learn why I had never heard of them before. I was shocked to discover that this music had traveled over 7,000 miles from Agadez, Niger before reaching my ears in Los Angeles. I am not quite sure what resonated so deeply with me– but I found a strange comfort in the music despite not understanding a single word or being able to relate to the artist in a traditional way. 

To me, this feeling encapsulates the beauty of music and art in general. Even without understanding the lyrics or knowing the artist’s background, the music moved me. It makes me feel. It’s an abstract concept but I think that is what separates true art from mere entertainment. How much can it make you feel?

Fascinated, I began to research Etran de L’Air and explore their history and discography. This led to my discovery of the Desert Blues’ history.

Watch the video above for a sample of their sound and ability to unify those that listen and dance along.

Desert Blues’ Historical Context:

This music scene emerged out of the rubble left by the French Colonial Government. Adding to the sociopolitical struggles that the Tuareg people were already facing in the wake of government collapse, Desertification made their nomadic way of life almost impossible. This culminated in a major drought in 1973, sending countless refuge-seeking Tuareg into urban centers. The young unemployed Tuareg was referred to as Ishumar. Many of these Ishumar men enlisted in surrounding military units, including Al-Gaddafi’s army. It was here that the Ishumar men were exposed to new people, ideas, and music.

The collective plight of this group gave them a sense of identity and pride that is reflected in the music they make. 

Tuareg men ride on camels during a festival in Iferouane, Niger… hoping to draw tourists back to the region by putting their traditional dances, music poetry and camel races on display. Despite concerns about Islamic extremism… organizers recently hosted more than 1,000 visitors in Iferouane, a village in Niger’s far north. (AP Photo/Ludivine Laniepce)

One soldier was named Ibrahim Ag Alhabib.

Ag Alhabib’s early years were fraught with adversity– he witnessed the execution of his own father at age four. In these formative years, he developed a passion for music after seeing a Western film featuring a cowboy holding a guitar. Carrying this passion, he built his own guitar out of scrap materials and found an outlet to voice the struggles that met him at every corner. When he was displaced years later, he found himself in a refugee camp in Algeria where a man gifted him his first real guitar– an acoustic. In the late 1970’s, Ag Alhabib collaborated with other musicians in the refugee communities of Libya and Algeria and formed his first band: Kel Tinariwen, which roughly translates to “People of the Desert” or “Desert Boys.”

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, frontman of Tinariwen

In 1990, after a long-overdue peace agreement was met, the Tinariwen were able to return to their home in Mali and finally play music full time.

The notion that an artist’s musical contributions were hindered by an obligation to fight in a war is a concept hard to wrap one’s head around. In the States, music releases are delayed by record label complications and band disagreements; in the case of Tinariwen, they were distracted by a literal civil war. 

Tuareg music has flourished since its tumultuous beginnings and now reaches listeners all over the world. Acts like Bombino, Mdou Moctar, and the all-enduring Tinariwen have grabbed the attention of a global audience– including myself.

Mdou Moctar

LA’s resident creative kingpin, Brain Dead, recently tapped in with the aforementioned Mdou Moctar for a collaboration.  The innovative clothing brand and Mdou Moctar teamed up on a brilliant graphic tee and hosted a screening of their film Afrique Victim at Brain Dead Studios, their movie theater off Fairfax.

This collaboration exemplifies the wide breadth and influence of Tuareg music.

Whether you’re a longtime fan of Desert Blues or hearing it for the first time today, I hope you enjoyed the read– and the music that inspired it. Bandsplaining deserves a huge shout-out for their incredibly informative video that taught me so much about the Sahara Desert Blues. I’d also like to thank World of Music for their history lesson on Tuareg Rock that provided the foundational context for this piece. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend A Story of Sahel Sounds that dives even deeper into the story of Tuareg artists.

The K’s Curation of Tuareg Tunes

by Maxwell Haber