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Samyuktha Sridhar

Electric Deserts

The rise of the electric guitar as an instrument of rebellion in a Sahara Desert nomad community.

Music8 min read

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib

"Tinariwen" by Morten Jensen, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Listening to the earnest twang of Tuareg guitarist Bombino’s instrument, one might hear what sounds like the familiar blues through a sun-soaked, defiantly liberated lens. His music is reminiscent of a variety of influential tunes from Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” to Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Lenny” to Ali Farka Touré’s “Dofana”; although the rebellious motivations of both musical movements are shared, it is incorrect to assume that Tuareg guitar practice is a direct descendant of American blues. Bombino’s lyrics, rhythms, and melodies prove that the guitar is simply an extension of the musician by infusing the guitar strings with the spirit of the Sahara desert in a manner unique to the voice of his people; he and all of the Tuareg rebel-musicians before him force us to look past the exotic haze created by Western “global” music culture, and deeply appreciate the full and very real weight of the revolution within.

The vastly diverse and semi-nomadic Tuareg, or kel Tamasheq, population of the Sahara-Sahel region have a turbulent history. They are called Amajagh and Tamajaq, meaning “free men and women” in Arabic, as indicated by their uncommon and unregulated heritage built upon decentralized coexisting confederations, lucrative caravan trade, cooperation amongst social strata, and matrilineal traditions. The Tuareg had to begin fighting for their way of life as the end of the 19th century saw a French colonial invasion of their homelands, and their fight continued through the political unrest incited by displacement and competition for resources amongst northern states in the aftermath of African independence in the 1960’s. In the turbulent post-independence landscape, the unbounded population suddenly found themselves split into five African states (Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria, and Burkina Faso), with varying degrees of inclusion; Libya and Algeria enforced full assimilation while Mali and Niger excluded the Tuareg from postcolonial reform policies. African leadership began to reimagine what it meant to be African, and the nomadic and ethnically diverse Tuareg didn't necessary fit into that new identity. In either direction, the regimes sought to wield their newfound power to diminish the existence of the kel Tamasheq. These decades of turmoil unique to the economically and socially marginalized Tuareg gave rise to a new evolution of unlikely warriors amongst them: musicians.

Music and political unrest flourished in tandem within the Tuareg community throughout the 1900’s, often uniting to fight the common enemy of cultural extinction. During this period of the West’s increasing encroachment upon global popular culture, Tuareg music adapted, while remaining strongly steeped in its heritage. It evolved from the more traditional teherdent style to tishumaren, or the music of ishumar (taken from the French word chômeur meaning “unemployed”), with the introduction of the guitar. The community-based teherdent style features a three string lute called a teherdent (the style’s namesake), accompanied by both male and female voices and scattered rhythmic intervals of the tinde drum and clapping, usually performed at intimate local events by repeating symbolic lore of heroic Tuareg warriors, nature, and love amongst familiar and supportive faces. Music was often ceremonial and musicians revered at such events, and it is quintessentially entwined with Tuareg identity, as it holds the stories of their past.

Teherdent Musicians

"Tartit" by Joaquim Coelho, licensed under CC BY 2.0

As the Malian government took over northern Africa in the 1960’s, the peacefully coexisting factions of kel Tamasheq unified into a larger national identity out of necessity. Several people either did not want or were denied citizenship in neighboring countries, and now found themselves working unstable seasonal jobs, hence the name ishumar; several men were recruited to fight for Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi in 1980, where they received military training and exposure to political separatist ideas. This shared experience led ishumar to begin providing support for each other outside of their own tribal confederations, creating a transnational network that began to seed Tuareg separatist rebel groups, such as MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad). Within this context of fundamental changes to their way of life, some ishumar started to incorporate the more recognizable and accessible guitar into their long-standing tradition of musical expression, symbolically linking it to their fight for the preservation of their identity. This newly created network allowed illegal ishumar guitar recordings, forbidden by the government for their political messages and unifying power, to circulate via cassette tape, and the scattered Tuareg communities were able to hear reflections of their own experiences voiced for the first time. Though the instrument changed from the teherdent to the guitar, the power of community held in both traditional and modernized Tuareg music did not change; in fact, the ishumar guitar became an even more crucial instrument of storytelling as the fight against the dissolution of Tuareg identity became more urgent.

After the Tuareg were effectively forced in the pursuit of survival to abandon their nomadic community subsistence in favor of a conformation to an economically-defined "productivity", they were pushed into the metaphorical and literal margins of their new states when several of them chose not to comply. A mass migration throughout the 80’s and 90’s catalyzed by economic and political exclusion, continued violence, and several unforgiving droughts had the diaspora congregating in large shantytowns on the borders of Algeria, Mali, and Niger, creating informal refugee communities. It is within these communities that ishumar guitar started to rise in popularity alongside the emerging Tuareg rebellion. Largely at the forefront of the bootleg ishumar cassette trade was the band Tinariwen, which would go on to become the most iconic voice of the Tuareg, and a rallying point for the disenfranchised nation. In his early childhood, founder of Tinariwen and Malian refugee Ibrahim Ag Alhabib fashioned his first guitar out of a plastic water can, incorporating Arabic pop and rock tunes into the familiar rhythms and notes of traditional music. In 1979, he formed the first iteration of Tinariwen with other musicians in the rebel community, inspired by the virtuosity (not Americanness) of rock legends like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, but writing and recording music very purposefully and specifically about the struggle of the Tuareg people. Their lyrics would hold political messages and it became a means of spreading information about the state of the rebellion. Tinariwen’s members were perhaps the most famous example of “military artists" in the rebellions, using both music and weapons to fight for the preservation of Tuareg culture. They were active participants in several insurrections, and they recorded those experiences through their music, energizing and calling to action a generation of fighters.

The Symbolic Power of a Familiar Song
A familiar melody is more than a beautiful tune and a comforting rhythm is more than a groovy beat; both are immediate reminders of why a song is familiar and comfortable in the first place, why it is special. A melody tied to identity can inspire a litany of emotions, such as nostalgia, joy, or pride, and the sudden accessibility of familiar Tuareg melodies by huge groups of disenfranchised people pushed together served as a reminder of a stolen lifestyle; musical events and performances not only brought the Tuareg into shared physical spaces, just as they used to do in their old way of life, but also into newly shared emotional spaces as the musical milieu imbibed the feelings of frustration and righteous anger emerging from the rebellion. In one particular way, the beat of Tuareg songs are meant to mirror the drawling gait of a camel, one of the most familiar and comforting rhythms to the nomadic tradespeople and a reminder of the years of theirs and their ancestors’ lives navigating their beloved Sahara. The displaced communities drew upon their shared emotional connection to their music to build upon a preexisting pride in their heritage, and this pride became crucial to the nationalist sentiment of rebel groups and the idea that the Tuareg deserved a national identity of their own. Their music serves as a reminder of loss, and what was done to their people, creating a stronger sense of unity and belonging than they previously had as a nomadic tribal population. This unity is the exact opposite of what the Malian government was trying to achieve, and it stoked the flames of many uprisings.

Coded Messaging
In the absence of a central infrastructure, tishumaren worked as a newspaper, carrying lyrical messages of current events from a Tuareg perspective to the fractured population. Oftentimes in Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, the lyrics were like private coded messages, only disseminated and understood by their own. This function of tishumaren as a vehicle for ideas and values was adapted from traditional Tuareg music, which was often used to prescribe a penal code, or sing praises of a valued member of the tribe, along with memorializing Tuareg lore. The role of music in Tuareg society stayed the same, but the messages themselves evolved as the needs of the community changed. The lyricism in tishumaren closely reflected the separatist rhetoric that groups like the MNLA were employing as a reasoning for the necessity of a Tuareg state. The MNLA adopted humanitarian and indigenous rights philosophies in the later rebellions, and these philosophies can be found in popular lyrics such as in Tinariwen’s “Soixante Trois”, brazenly named in French (the language of their original colonizers), which solemnly states:

’63 has gone, but will return
Those days have left their traces
They murdered the old folk and a child just born
They swooped down to the pastures and wiped out the cattle…
’63 has gone, but will return

Based on Tinariwen’s own Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s experience witnessing his father’s execution at the age of 4, these lyrics evoke stark imagery of the brutality and injustice of colonialism, and support the MNLA’s plea for humane rights with personal and relatable examples of inhumane treatment. There is a warning within the lyrics that it is inevitable. The lyrics ring with pathos, encapsulating very real experiences that provide an invaluable oral record of the plight of the Tuareg and serve the imperative function of raising awareness. Tishumaren lyrics also urged Tuareg people to band together, such as in Tinarewen’s “Toumast”:

A divided people will never reach its goal
It will never cultivate an acacia tree with beautiful leaves
A divided people will lose its way
Each part of it will become an enemy in itself

Sometimes, without explicitly discussing Tuareg tragedy, tishumaren lyrics bring to light the complex joys of being kel Tamasheq, with words like those in Bombino’s “Tenere”, where he sings about the beautiful harshness of his home:

I am realizing the hard conditions of the life of my brothers
Sun is burning in the desert. There is no rain in the desert
To live in the desert, we need to have a strong morale
We live in the most beautiful space and the hardest space for life
Wide open spaces of the desert! In the desert! Desert! In the desert!

The Tuareg crisis is a modern example of the dangers of unwarranted and unnecessary interference in another way of life, of imperialism. When resources are exhausted and fighters outnumbered, there is a quieter resistance in simply continuing to live. Empowered by tishumaren, the Tuareg youth began to perfect and love the art, and to freely express their thoughts on the Tuareg condition through music amidst tremendous hardship. Among those youths was Bombino, who took his talents and message around the world, widely memorializing the story of the Tuareg in a way very similar to the messaging in traditional Tuareg music, repeating lore of Tuareg greatness in the face of adversity. Also at the forefront of Tuareg fame is the all-female band Les Filles de Illighadad, founded by Fatou Seidi Ghali, who is believed to be the first Tuareg women to play guitar professionally; she transformed the traditional role of the female musician which centered around the tinde drum, and dared to learn to play the guitar. With the tinde being a source of inspiration for tishumaren, Ghali and her bandmates are asserting the power of women to innovate using the roots of traditional Tuareg music, and in the process, staying true to Tuareg matriarchal roots. This unwavering adaptability proves that the Tuareg identity remains resilient through colonization, urbanization, displacement, and oppression, and that violence alone cannot extinguish a people if their culture lives on. Not for the first or last time in history, violence and art work in tandem to resist the oppression of a minority.

Click here for a full background on the Tuareg rebellions.


Gonzales, Giulia Displacement and Belonging: musical consumption and production among Malian Kel Tamasheq Refugees in Burkina Faso
Klute, Georg & Lecocq, Baz Tuareg Separatism in Mali
Rasmussen,Susan A Temporary Diaspora: Contested Cultural Representations in Tuareg International Musical Performance
Belalimat, Nadia The Ishumar Guitar: Emergence, Circulation & Evolution from Diaspora Performances to the World Scene.

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