Desert Blues: A Brief Introduction to Northwest African Rock Music


Mélanie Gasmen / THE REVIEW
Tishoumaren (known as desert blues outside of Africa) is a genre made up of traditional hymns of nomadic Berber tribes steeped in western blues and rock music.


Rock’n’roll has always been a staple in the Western world and remains one of the most listened to genres in the world.

But the 2010s saw the decline of fuzzy-sounding guitars and thumping drums in favor of rolling hi-hat triplets, massive sub-basses and synth leads. Hip-hop has become, and still is, the dominant genre of the decade, extending even from its point of origin in the United States. Suffice it to say that rock’s influence and popularity has waned in recent years and continues to decline to this day. But rock is not dead. In fact, his legacy continues in the most unlikely place on the planet: the Sahara Desert.

Tishoumaren (known as desert blues outside of Africa) is a genre made up of traditional hymns of nomadic Berber tribes steeped in western blues and rock music. The roots of the genus are found mainly in the regions of the Maghreb (North Africa) and sub-Saharan Africa, mainly in the countries of Mali, Niger, Libya, Western Sahara, Algeria and Burkina Faso. Although this genre has been around since the mid-20th century, it has recently gained some international attention. Some bands weren’t just nominated for a Grammy, some of them even won one.

As such, it can sound tantalizing to listen to desert blues, and rightly so! While the lyrics can be overwhelming for many casual listeners, as most, if not all, of the bands speak either a Tuareg language or Arabic, the intonation of the lyrics is emotional and even catchy despite the barrier of language.

When we talk about Tishoumaren, a group par excellence which we can say that gives life to the movement is the Tuareg group Tinariwen. Gathered in 1979, this group was formed under special circumstances, as some members were either refugees fleeing the war or were part of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s army. Despite this, they all met and united through their love of music. From 1979 to 2011, the group released numerous albums and extended plays which drew a little international attention, until they released their masterpiece, “Tassili”.

Although more traditional than the rest of their contemporaries, this album played a crucial role as a gateway for international listeners interested in the genre due to its accessibility and reach, even winning the Grammy Award for Best Music Album. global. Additionally, “Tassili” is a good starter as its traditional rhythms are easy to listen to and not at all overbearing – rock influences are minimal and are used sparingly. This allows the listener to immerse themselves in African and Arabic rhythms and lyrics, giving them a great introduction to African music, while still being enticed to listen due to the familiarity and mix of Western rock music. .

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Mdou Moctar’s album, “Ilana (The Creator)”. Although it is closer to American rock, it still adds many flavors of nomadic Berber music and even psychedelic sounds à la Jimi Hendrix. This album will be easier to grasp for casual listeners as it is reminiscent of psychedelic rock from the 60s and classic rock sound. In addition, the North African rhythms and instruments found at Tinariwen are instead replaced by guitars, bass and drums which are combined with psychedelic effects that make them stand out from their contemporaries. This album is a great introduction for listeners unfamiliar with the desert blues genre while pushing the boundaries of what is considered traditional Berber music.

Listening to bands and artists from other corners of the world is imperative not only to broaden one’s tastes, but also to broaden the horizons of old and new genres. While it may seem like the limelight is over, its influence and evolution are easily seen in Northwest Africa.

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