It was late 2009 when I got my first taste of Agadez. Searching a relatively primitive YouTube for new music to explore for an ethnomusicology class, I came across a four-minute clip that would change my perspective on the electric guitar for years to come.
Recorded in 2004 by Sublime Frequencies founder Hisham Mayet, the video showcased a small ensemble of guitarists, vocalists, and a drummer playing in a bat-filled basement for a group of seated women in veils, all of whom would sing in a call-and-response fashion to the band’s frontman.
The guitars swung in droning melodies over open tunings while the drums marched almost mechanically to a triplet-infused, four-to-the-floor groove pattern, all while the vocals exclaimed repetitively a communal chant that I couldn’t for the life of me get out of my head.
What I was witnessing was my first glimpse into the world of Tuareg music, a desert blues created by a nomadic people hailing from all across the Western Saharan region from Morocco to Mali, performed in the below video by Group Inerane. And while Tuareg music’s popularity has since expanded to European and North American audiences, most diehards consider Agadez, Niger, to be the birthplace of this unique guitar sound.
No strangers to persecution in their own land, the Tuareg people are one of the largest confederations of African Berbers on the continent. They have repeatedly fought for autonomy over their home regions, including against French colonialist powers in the 1910s, the Malian government in the 1960s, and most recently, against the governments of Niger and Mali in the 1990s. And throughout all of these 20th-century struggles, just like the practitioners of afrobeat music in Nigeria, musical autonomy has been one of the many ways the Tuareg people resist against opposing forces.
By adapting the electric guitar to perform traditional folk melodies and poems which date back centuries, all in the native Tamachek language, the Tuareg people cultivated a style that was truly independent of the more traditional Muslim musical influences of the East and the popular Afrobeat stylings to the South. The Tuareg people wield amps and axes as their primary means of defense and independence.
The Tuareg guitar style relies heavily on repetitive drones and monophonic melodies played across variously unique styles of open tunings, often played in polyrhythmic patterns in partnership with equally unique grooves on the drumkit. The music itself, while based in traditional song structures dating back hundreds of years, acts as a bridge between North African folk music and early American guitar music such as the open-tuned early Delta blues stylings of Blind Willie Johnson and John Lee Hooker, as well as the Primitivists of the 1960s such as John Fahey and Robbie Basho.
Here, the drone from the lower strings acts as the universal quality heard in all of the above styles. It’s through this droning repetition and polyrhythmic complexity that Tuareg music achieves this trance-like trippiness on par with any western psychedelia.
For the uninitiated, I would hope this article serves to be a beginners’ primer for this incredibly rich music of Saharan Africa as we go through some of my essential listens from almost a decade of geeking out over this stuff.
Being the first band I’ve ever heard in the Agadez Tuareg style, it’s an absolute must that I begin our discussion with Group Inerane. Founded by Bibi Ahmed, Group Inerane continues the tradition of electrifying traditional Tamachek folk songs, just as Ahmed had begun doing in Libyan refugee camps throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Group Inerane acts as a culmination of Ahmed’s sonic weaponry he cultivated throughout his youth, and the results are intoxicating.
As previously mentioned, Hisham Mayet had taken quite a fancy to Group Inerane’s sound in the mid-aughts, eventually traveling to Agadez to record and film the group himself in their native city. These intimate encounters with the group led to two Sublime Frequencies projects that helped boost Group Inerane to international audiences: the first being a full-length film entitled Niger: Magic and Ecstasy in the Sahel, from which the four-minute clip I encountered in 2009 was an excerpt, and the second being one of Sublime Frequencies’ most popular LP series, Guitars from Agadez: Music of Niger, which is now in its seventh installment.
For Group Inerane, this western label provided the group with a platform to spread their unique sounds abroad, eventually touring Europe and North America by late 2011. Here’s a video of their performance in Glasgow, taken on one of these pivotal first world tours.
I first heard Mdou Moctar in 2011 on Sahel Sounds’ Music From Saharan Cellphones compilation with his single “Talhoutine,” and I was completely blown away by how much he differed from the other Tuareg guitarists. Here, instead of utilizing the standard rock-band instrumentation to electrify a traditional sound, Mdou Moctar turned to drum machines, synthesizers, and even Auto-Tune to accompany his signature guitar stylings, something heard more often from his neighbors to the East and South in Afropop and Soukous music.
And yet, there is something inherently Agadezian in Moctar’s utilization of stripped-down electronic production techniques. Auto-Tuned and reverberated vocals enhance these ancient melodies in contrast to the starkly dry acoustic steel strings, while polyrhythmic accents convey a mechanical precision on the drum machines that is surprisingly soulful and human.
In 2014, Sahel Sounds released Moctar’s first proper EP of these collected Auto-Tune recordings dating back to 2008. Entitled Anar, this EP was received with universal acclaim from critics for its unique blending of traditional folk composition and contemporary lo-fi production techniques, proving to be a monumental moment for Tuareg guitar music.
Moctar continued to exceed expectations again in 2015 when he partnered up with Sahel Sounds label head Christopher Kirkley to star in, produce, and compose his own feature-length film adaptation of Prince’s 1984 blockbuster, Purple Rain. Entitled Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (which translates to “Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red in It”), the film follows the same narrative as Purple Rain but is set in Agadez and with an entirely rewritten script in Moctar’s native Tamachek and music consistently reflective of local Tuareg stylings. The film is an entertaining delight for the concept alone, and the original soundtrack and stylish cinematography taking the viewer through contemporary Agadez and the Sahel desert region make it a must watch.
Here’s Moctar’s single from Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, called, “Adounia.”
Les Filles De Illighadad
The only female group on this list, and one of the only women-led groups popular on the circuit, the pioneering Filles De Illighadad are guitarist Fatou Seidi Ghali and vocalist Alamnou Akrouni. Apparently, growing up, Ghali would sneak away with her brother’s guitar to teach herself how to play in isolation!
They tour with a group of local musicians from Niger but cowrite their material themselves as a duo. Their self-titled debut album was recorded outdoors in the desert, just like this video below. Their first-ever studio-recorded album, Eghass Malan, just came out last week! These ladies are on the rise, touring the world now and gaining international attention with every song they release.
Another alumnus of Sublime Frequencies’ Guitars from Agadez series, Bombino (born Omara Moctar) developed his signature guitar sound while in exile from Niger and living abroad in Algeria, Libya, and, ultimately, Burkina Faso. By the time he returned to Agadez in 2010, he was already a rock star in both his family’s home of Niger and abroad, having toured for western audiences and made his mark on the North American psychedelic scene. It’s because of these travels through his youth and early adulthood that Bombino’s sound remains so unique even among his Tuareg guitar peers.
There is something both inherently Pan-African and western in Bombino’s work. Whether it’s his choice of percussion instruments or his compositional structures, he has the ability to strike a genuine resonance with all who encounter his stage presence. Like I said, 100% rock star.
Azna de L’Ader
Hailing from Tahoua, Niger, this (heavily) Hendrix-inspired psych-rock outfit has been crushing party sound systems all over the Sahara Desert for decades. This distorted riff-based rock guitar meanders all over the place while the bass and drums lay down a rhythmic groove that’s also not afraid to go astray. Azna de L’Ader was formed in 1970 and is led by the ageless, charismatic Mona. Check him out here shredding along to a very out version of “Purple Rain,” and hear one of their classic originals called “Zabaya” below.
Not much is known about this local guitarist/songwriter from Niger. But this campfire-friendly jam from Sahel Sounds’ compilation Agrim Agadez: Musique Guitare de la République du Niger is so catchy it’d be a crime not to include this on the list. For every one Mohamed Karzo, there are 10 more artists out there in the sands of Niger singing into the night who we may never hear on record. Hopefully, though, Sahel Sounds will stay on top of this scene in years to come!
Here are a few Honorable Mentions to the list, so nobody goes home empty-handed.
Although not from Niger, this influential Malian supergroup, founded in 1979, has helped define the 21st-century Tuareg sound despite political problems at home. Among countless accolades, Tinariwen has toured the world over so many times and has played and recorded alongside TV on the Radio, Robert Plant, Matt Sweeney, and Saul Williams.
Music From Saharan Cellphones Vol. 1 and 2
An essential “who’s who” of the Western Saharan scene, this compilation from Sahel Sounds helped to put their label on the map. All these songs were collected by Christopher Kirkley during his travels throughout the Sahel region.
Since the much of the Sahel consists of nomadic communities, music heads rely on the sales and trades of Sim cards loaded with new music from the region versus the more typical usage of desktop-based file sharing services and online music stores you see elsewhere on the continent and throughout the world.
These compilations serve as a way in for non-Sahel audiences to hear the eclectic sounds of Northwest Africa, everything from local hip-hop, pop, and, of course, desert blues is heard on these two collections.
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