While it's often been said that music is a great tool for communication, I don't think that anyone has taken that adage as literally in recent years as the nomadic peoples of the Sahara desert known as the Tuareg. For the past thousand years or so they have travelled the desert herding their flocks from one patch of arable land to another. Using their extensive knowledge of the desert and the trails that lead through its shifting sands they also served as traders carrying spices and other goods between villages and outposts that dotted the Sahara. It's most likely from the Tuareg that we in West developed our romantic image of long lines of camels wending their way through seas of sand.
The Tuareg's way of life was first disrupted with the coming of the Europeans, in their case the French, who sought to bring them to heel. However, no matter what damage the French may have inflicted during their time as colonial masters, the manner of their departure made things even worse. French North Africa, including the parts of the Sahara desert which had been the Tuareg's traditional territory was divided up arbitrarily into various countries. In order to continue on with their traditional way of life and follow the routes they had travelled for centuries they now had to deal with five countries; Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
By the 1980's their traditional way of life was seriously threatened by the loss of pasture land due to drought and the encroachment of urban centres. More and more people were forced into refugee camps and cities where they were treated as second class citizens. In an attempt to reclaim some of their lost territory the Tuareg accepted an offer from Libya to train them as guerilla fighters. Yet it wasn't just weapons training they received in Libya, for along with sub-machine guns and other automatic weaponry many of the young men equipped themselves with electric guitars.
They wrote songs praising their traditional way of life and the beauty of the desert, but most of all they sang to encourage their people to fight to preserve both of them, even if it meant taking up arms to do so. The focal points of the rebellion were in Niger and Mali and cassettes of the music was smuggled into those areas. At one point the situation was so volatile that being caught by police or army in either of those countries with a tape from one of the Libyan based bands would result in arrest. Those first groups were said to have rode into battle with machine guns in their arms and electric guitars strapped to their backs, and it's from them that a second generation of Tuareg musicians have taken their inspiration.
In 2007 the Seattle Washington based label Sublime Frequencies released a limited edition LP by one of those second generation bands, Group Inerane, and on September 30th/08 they will be issuing Guitars From Agadez (Music Of Niger) a CD version. The group's leader, Bibi Ahmed, makes no bones about the fact that they are influenced by the men who came before them. In the liner notes accompanying the CD it says he openly admits that a great deal of the music he plays were written by Abdallah Oumbadougou, one of the originators of the electric Tuareg music and now a member of the French/Tuareg collective known as Desert Rebel. In the years since the rebellion Oubadougou has not only been active as a performer, he has taken on students to pass on his skills and knowledge, and Ahmed was one of his students.
Bibi may not be fighting with a gun (or he might be now as August of 2007 saw a renewal of hostilities in both Mali and Niger as the Tuareg have become frustrated with the reneging by both countries on the terms of the treaties signed in the 1990's and the loss of more territory in Niger to Uranium mining) but he is definitely continuing to wage the same war against the incursion of the modern world. He believes that his music will be able to help preserve his people's way of life.
Those of you unfamiliar with Sublime Frequency's style of recordings might be a little nonplussed by Guitars From Agadez because of the roughness of the sound quality. Very few, if any, of this label's recordings are done in a studio as they prefer to record people in situ. While it may seem odd to do the equivalent of field recordings in this day and age where portable studios are so readily available their intent is to try and capture and recreate as much of the experience of being in the locale as well as recording the music. They're in a small town in Niger, the third poorest country in the world, recording desert nomads giving a live concert - and there's nothing about this disc to make you think otherwise.
Although the mix is fine there are times when the sound gets a bit fuzzy around the edges as it distorts because record levels are exceeded. The music is typical of the Tuareg in that it is heavy on droning electric guitar that creates a trance like effect on the listener. Although in this case it is minimized by the prominence of the drum kit in the mix. I mention this because it is the first time that I've ever noticed drums to the extent that I did on this recording when listening to music by a Tuareg band. While you are of course always aware of them, they've never been featured in the way they are here. It's not due to any errors in the mix either, as they're are times when only the drums are playing or they are providing the sole accompaniment to the female vocalists in the band.
While all of the Tuareg groups I've listened to have included at least one female singer to ensure that the traditional undulating sound of their voice is part of the music, the four who are members of Group Inerane are the most I've heard perform at once with any of them. While one woman's voice raised in song like that is enough to send chills down your spine, the first time I heard all four sing together I nearly jumped out of my skin. They say that the Scots used to have bagpipes lead their troops into battle in an attempt to unnerve their enemies, but bagpipes sound positively tame when compared to the sound of these voices.
I don't know if the tradition is the same for the Tuareg, but among some of the desert nations the women would sing in this manner to send men off to war, to welcome home warriors, or as an expression of grief. In this instance, given the context set forth by Bibi Ahmed, and the atmosphere generated by the music, I would say they are singing to rally the people to war. The songs are about the traditional ways, and are being sung to encourage the people to preserve them, so it seems to me a reasonable interpretation.
Guitars From Agadez by Group Inerane represents one of the first releases of second generation Tuareg warriors of the guitar; the men and women who are fighting to preserve the traditional ways of their people through song. While the sound quality might not be the best, the power and energy that the rawness of the recording creates more than compensates for any deficiencies . While studio albums by some of the more established groups, ones that include translations of their lyrics into English, might give you intellectual insights into the music, this recording works on a more visceral level.
Without having anything else to hold onto as a way of understanding what's going on, the emotions generated by the band's performance becomes of primary importance. You may not be able to understand what they are singing about, but you can't fail to comprehend how truly committed they are to their cause, and that like the previous generation they might just be prepared to die for it. This CD offers ironclad proof of music's power of communication as even without understanding the lyrics the message being delivered is loud and clear.
Originally posted September 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.