Les Filles de Illighadad: Daughters of the Desert

In the middle of the Niger, near a town called Abalak, lies the tiny desert village Illighadad. A few houses and a school surround a well, nestled amongst the bushy landscape of the Sahara. Its Tuareg community lives a quiet existence, guided by the seasons. Traditionally the men work and occasionally travel to trade. The women are in charge of the home and the animals. While they herd goats, they sing to pass the time. At night, they perform tende, a convivial cacophony of drumming and female voices that underscore the village’s celebrations. This is the place where, a decade or so ago, a young girl named Fatou Seide Ghali picked up a battered old guitar and taught herself to play.

Ghali is one of two women in the Niger who play the guitar. And my can she play. The desert blues sound that streams from her fingers is deeply enigmatic. She pours it into the village’s tende music, infusing traditional sounds with the strumming of strings and softly sung melodies. She’s joined by her cousin Alamnou Akrouni, who also provides vocals. Together they are Les Filles de Illighadad, the daughters of Illighadad. When they play at home, their music is supported by backing vocals from the entire village. Their brothers and sisters, cousins and friends clap and sing along. These women and their sound have put Illighadad on the map. Literally. The rural Niger village was unheard of to the outside world before Ghali and Alamnou’s music travelled far beyond the African continent.

Les Filles de Illighadad came to prominence recently thanks to Sahel Sounds, a record label and archiving project by Portland-based Christopher Kirkley. While recording sounds and connecting with musicians in the Sahel – a transitional zone between the Southern Sahara and the Savanna in Sudan – Kirkley came across a photo of Ghali playing the guitar at a wedding. In a world where women are only designated the role of playing the tende drum, this image was out of place. He showed the photo to a Tuareg musician he knew, who happened to be Ghali’s cousin. A trip was planned to Illighadad.

The original concept had been to record Ghali playing her acoustic guitar, but she had other plans. Ghali insisted that, first and foremost, she was a tende performer, and that the music was better when she played with her cousin. So Kirkley recorded both sounds; Ghali sitting outside her house during the day, her strumming and singing accompanied by the sound of crickets and the dense silence of the desert. Her playing is hypnotic, a cascade of blues rhythms and tenderly sung lyrics telling stories of the desert and love. And he recorded Les Filles de Illighadad, at night in the village, playing an exultant, pumping tende rhythm infused with bluesy guitar and supported by the energy and cries of the villagers. Tende music is usually played by women, who beat a large goatskin drum and symphonize songs that speak of the nomadic Tuareg existence. At times they keep the taut skin of the drum wet, so its rhythms mimic the cantering of camels.

The recordings were made in the open-air studio of the desert, but thanks to the internet and Sahel Sounds’ vinyl sales, Les Filles de Illighadad reached far and wide with their music. Last year they did a small European tour, and this year they will expand their horizons even more. We’re thrilled they will be gracing SSFB festival this June with their hypnotic, raw sound.

When they tour, Ghali and Akrouni are joined by Mariama Salah Aswan, also a vocalist, and occasionally Ghali’s brother Ahmoudou Madassane on bass. It was Madassane who happened to leave behind that chipped, dusty guitar that Ghali fell in love with not so many years ago. He now manages the band, offering a male helping hand where Niger’s local custom would otherwise have forbidden the women to travel or be paid for work. On a world scale, Les Filles de Illighadad have been seminal in altering the musical landscape, infusing ishumar and tende music with the blues and with their personal, powerful femininity, forging a new path for a whole musical genre. At home, Les Filles de Illighadad have proven that the paid work of women and the celebration of their talents is not something to fear.

Ghali has invested her earnings in buying more cattle for her family. As with her music, she has a clear picture of what she would like to achieve. She wants a great future as a performer, and she wants other women to learn to play the guitar, so that they can be successful together. Aswan, one of the other band members, arrived barefoot to a gig in the French winter and was, perhaps subsequently, inspired by the Western medicine she came to experience. She now wants to use her earnings to pay for medical training, so that she can become a nurse. Les Filles de Illighadad are in their early twenties, and their futures are bright.

Hopefully this means we will be blessed with plenty more mesmeric music from these daughters of the desert. Music that speaks of mountains and oases, of drought and famine, of nomads and traditions. And, of course, of love. For now, catch them at SSFB, where their desert warmth is bound to prevail over our hesitant Dutch summer and, with its rhythms and soothing incantations, steal our hearts.


Les Filles de Illighadad will be performing at SSFB Weekender 2018 on June 23th and 24th. Limited tickets are available here.