Desert Blues: Soul of the Sahara

The Sahara desert, the biggest sand desert on our planet, stretches all the way from the Atlantic Ocean along the Western part of Africa to the Red Sea by the shores of East Africa. As deserted as she might seem when staring at the light colored patch on Google Maps, for centuries her dunes have been and still are home to countless of tribes; soil that has proven to be solid ground for conflict but even more so fertile for music. It is this unique mixture of traditional customs, the heartache of a region, and shredding guitar riffs that gives Desert Blues the allure it has now. With bands like Tinariwen and Imarhan taking the Western world by storm, it seems only fair to take a closer look at this mysteriously familiar sound.

The birth of the Blues as many know goes all the way back to the mid-19th century Americas, where the purpose of its existence was a self-made escapade by slaves from the daily misery they faced. This rhythmic 12 quadruple time would later form the basis of what we now know to be jazz and rock. As slavery music Blues won territory in the United States after World War I, its sounds having already resonated across the Atlantic – the start of what we now call Desert Blues.

When thinking about the desert and her blues, one can’t help but think of Ali Farka Touré – one of Africa’s most influential musicians to have ever lived. He took his African Blues on a pilgrimage far beyond the borders of the Motherland only to return to his roots and share his wealth and riches. His story is one of many Africans. Born as the youngest of ten, Ali Farka Touré has been the only one to reach adulthood. This is not uncommon in Mali where the infant mortality rate ranks as one of the highest worldwide. It is how he got his nickname “Farka”, which means donkey. With that exact same resilience and stubbornness, he went from a boy who handcrafted his own one-string guitar out of a tuna can to the internationally applauded winner of not one but two Grammys. What does a success story like his sound like?

From the Sahara Desert in the northern region of Mali comes Tinariwen. What started off as jam sessions in the desert eventually developed into a group of Touareg musicians not only playing but also writing their own music, and thereby their own story. Redirecting the compass of Touareg music by changing its relevance from tributes and tales of long-gone warriors to the story of the tangible present – a hymn that realistically depicts the lively hardship they faced during rebellion war affairs. Many songs carry words and messages that once understood are hard to be taken lightly. The magical thing about this “trance-Saharan” music, is that even those who don’t speak Tamashek will still grasp its significance through the universal language of music.

Tartit, originated in ’92 in a refugee camp in Timbuktu, consists of five women and four men playing hypnotic drums and stringy guitars. Their music finds similarities in their Western Sahara neighboring Gnawa music, both containing a meditative power through their organic rhythms and soothing enchantments. Unlike the stereotype often carried out by the media, women and men in the Touareg tribe are considered equal. As you might notice in their performances, it is the men who are veiled rather than the women, representing a tradition rooted in a time long before religion played a part. Later on, in 2006, Imarhan was formed. This group includes some former members of Tartit but embraces a sound leaning towards rock. A sound that has given them the status of being Tinariwen’s little brother.

Self-taught Desert Blues guitarist Mdou Moctar comes from the Azawagh desert in Niger but has travelled to Libya and stayed there for quite some time. That is where he worked many jobs whilst practising his musical craft, eventually turning back home with a guitar and inspiration. He is considered one of the first to experiment beyond the comfortable borders of his genre by implementing electronic elements to the existing style. His first international album Afelan was released in 2013 followed by a vinyl release of Anar in 2014 that was received with great admiration. His wayward and unconventional approach has got him standing out and performing beyond his home country, Niger.

Mdou Moctar has toured in Europe and North America and is coming back to the Netherlands this weekend. You can catch Moctar, the future of Desert Blues, play alongside legends and connoisseurs Awesome Tapes From Africa, Ronald Snijders, Orpheu the Wizard, Philou Louzolo and many more during the free Festival Magia on Saturday, August 19th at the Rotterdam Central District.