Kel Tamasheq Sounds of the Sahara

Back in the late 1960s and ’70s, when bootleg cassette tapes first began exchanging hands amongst the Tuareg ranks of Muammar el-Qaddafi, the early sounds of Tinariwen were sown across the desert sands of the Sahara. Singing songs of struggle and division, their guitar-driven modal grooves became a unifying call for independence for Kel Tamasheq fans scattered across Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Libya and portions of Burkina Faso.

The words, Tuareg and Kel Tamasheq, are often used interchangeably when referring to these semi-nomadic people of North African Berber origin: Tuareg being an ascribed remnant of former French occupation; and Kel Tamasheq, a unifying endomym that translates as “speakers of the Tamasheq language.” Historically, they were traders along the caravan routes of the Sahara until 20th century French colonization and oppressive Malian governing, repeated droughts, devastating famine and subsequent rebellions left many seeking refuge in the desert.

Until recently, the ténéré—or desert—was a way of life for many. Nowadays, though, the younger generations are migrating to the cities in search of jobs and modern lives like anyone else, while remaining a part of the ishumar fabric. Following in the footsteps of Tinariwen, nascent bands like Tishoumara featuring Bazo Omar from Niamey, Niger, keep the Kel Tamasheq spirit alive digitally now by recording their music on their smart phones to share with one another via text messages, Whatsapp and Facebook rather than cassettes. It’s a beautiful thing.

Our special guest this week on Rhythm Planet is Nyka Kwon, who visits us from Bamako, Mali, treating us to some never-before-heard Kel Tamasheq sounds from the Sahara. I met Nyka last summer, after deejay-ing the opening set for Mauritanian powerhouse Noura Mint Seymali at the Skirball Cultural Center, where she was dancing to the deep, trance-inducing grooves alongside my peripatetic friend, Tom Nguyen, who runs the music and cultural bulletin, EnClave LA. Two weeks later, Nyka moved to Bamako, Mali, and I’d wondered what became of her.

The impetus for Nyka’s move to Mali came in 2008, when she first heard Tinariwen on public radio. She recalls their “Chet Boghassa” as having awakened “moribund DNA to a past life as a Kel Tamasheq girl living in the vast expanse of the ténéré, and thus, the caravan was set in motion.” It’s a feeling that, I think, many of us city slickers have probably felt on some level or another during our hectic lives—the desire to simplify and reconnect with that which is rooted and authentic.

We hear this embodied in the visceral music of Tartit, a band of women from Timbuktu, whose musical structure takes us back to the very origins of traditional Kel Tamasheq music. Led by the matriarch lead, Fadimata Walet Oumar or “Disco,” whom Nyka affectionally refers to as her Saharan sister, the women sit around a tende (drum) and sing to the accompaniment of an imzad (one-string violin).

It’s important to note the female musicianship because the associations most people have of Kel Tamasheq music is that of men in tagelmousts playing guitars in the desert, when in fact, there is so much more to the genre that we simply haven’t been exposed to. Niger singer-guitarist Mariam Ahmed from Agadez is just one example of a female artist you might not hear otherwise, but she is featured on Sahel Sounds, a wonderful website worth exploring. Started by Portlandian Christopher Kirkley, it’s an archive of field recordings by such unknown artists as Mariam that he collects during his sojourns to the Sahara, in order to share these musical treasures of the Kel Tamasheq since most of what’s being created there never makes it out to foreign soil. Check it out here.

The theme of assouf, as an expression of what we long for or continue to seek existentially, is an underlying current heard throughout much of Kel Tamasheq music, whether it be from the early days of Tinariwen to the music of the youth who continue to seek their own place to call “home” even today. Nyka tells us of an old Kel Tamasheq proverb that says, “it’s better to keep walking than to stay put, even if you don’t know our destination.” And to that end, her journey to the ténéré continues.





Tom Schnabel