Saharan Blues: The music of the desert, of rebellion and why I love it

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

Clad in the traditional sky-blue clothes of yore. Troughs and crests of sand beneath, and the pure azure skies on top.

Who are they?

They are the Tuareg. The Kel Tamasheq. The masters of the Sahara. The Berbers. The exiled.

A culture dyed in the colours of freedom, a semi-nomadic people, left alienated by the forced arabisation of North Africa. A people left land-less, language-less.

The Tuareg are a hard folk. Co-conspirators in the infamous African slave trade, the Tuareg were the threads that connected the Gold Coast of Africa to Arabia and the Mediterranean coast. After the French granted independence to their holdings in North Africa, the Tuareg suffered at the hands of the arabised governments of Algeria, Mali, Libya and Niger. Their language, deemed criminal. Their culture, heresy.

Armed insurgencies ensued, followed by government crackdowns, followed by further armed resistance. All in futility.

They were exiled from the lands they had called home for millennia.

Okay, enough about politics.

Let’s talk music.

I love the blues. Born in the womb of the deep American south, it is a genre entrenched in suffering.

Entrenched in suffering, but speaking of hope.

Something about this music, maybe the tenacity at its heart, or maybe the pain and suffering it talks of, has always resonated with me.

I have cribbed endlessly about modern music. The commodification of it, that is, to produce music meant only to sell, never sat well with me. One look at the modern music scene, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that the music that I had loved the most, was dead.

Or so I thought.


The interiors of the Sahara serve as a hotbed for electric guitar blues.

Crazy, right?

The Tuareg, some still in exile, some back home, are producing some of the best electric-guitar based music today.

Sung in ancient Tamasheq, the music can be best described by the word assouf.

Assouf is a feeling caught between joy and sorrow. A feeling that says to you, ”I know life has been hard, but you’ve made it so far.”, knowing full well that tough times are far from done.

Usually recorded outdoors, the music itself is soft, groovy, sometimes meditative, sometimes hymn-like. Scantily produced, the music feels natural. Unfiltered.

The guitar is almost exclusively played without a pick, with flutters and bends punctuating every lick. Percussions are usually of folk origin, with traditional drum-sets used seldom. Vocal work is handled by one person, with choruses sung by all the members. This comes from the campfire-circle origins of the music, where the audience was expected to pitch in.

The lyrics usually deal with themes of loss, love and longing, subjects common in Tuareg literature. Monotone storytelling, in rhythm, is also common, based on the oral traditions of the Tuareg.


Of the artists I have encountered so far, the most popular have to be Tinariwen. Tinariwen in Tamasheq can be translated to ‘Deserts’. With tracks like Tenhert, Sastanaqqam, Iswegh Attay and Nannuflay, the band is primarily blues rock, if you had to categorise it in a genre. Insistent rhythms, moderate distortions and atmospheric vocal chanting are a staple of their music.


Bombino, though is a lot more folk. With a vocal style which is not for everyone, afrobeat influences and undeniably soulful guitar tunes, Bombino is a bit harder to access. Once you fall for his music, however, he’s sure to be a name fixed in your playlist. Oulhin, Akhar Zaman, Mahegagh and Iyati Dunia should be a good starting point

Mdou Moctar

Mdou Moctar is a guitar virtuoso. Often called the Halal Hendrix, his guitar work is truly mesmerising. His soulful bends and clear tones transport you to a land far away, where all that exists is powdered gold underfoot, and a deep blue field of fireflies overhead. Recommendations? Anna, Tarhatazed and Imouhagh.

There’s also reggae infused music of Afous D’Afous, the melancholy tones of Tamikrest, the pulsating ululations of Toumast, and many, many more.

In this age of music, where everything sounds the same, if you are looking for something different, this is for you.

If you have had the same issues with radio music, as I do, despair not.

Good music isn’t dead.

It’s just hidden.

Buried in places that might surprise you.

tags: #tinariwen #blues #tuareg

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