The rebel sounds of the Sahara: Sanjoy Narayan on desert blues - Hindustan Times
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The rebel sounds of the Sahara: Sanjoy Narayan on desert blues

Jun 07, 2024 10:07 PM IST

Tishoumaren is a genre marked by the struggles of an ethnic community’s attempts to assert its identity.

A couple of years ago, when I first watched a livestream of Mdou Moctar and his band playing on KEXP, the non-commercial Seattle FM radio station, two things amazed me. First, how he can absolutely electrify and blow one’s mind with the way he shreds his guitar; and, second, how absolutely calm and composed he remains as he does this.

A scene from the music video for Imouhar (Tuareg for brother or comrade), a song from Mdou Moctar’s latest album Funeral for Justice, which has themes of political strife, rebellion and protest. PREMIUM
A scene from the music video for Imouhar (Tuareg for brother or comrade), a song from Mdou Moctar’s latest album Funeral for Justice, which has themes of political strife, rebellion and protest.

There is no dearth of guitar heroes in rock music’s past and present; in fact, a list of their names would be long. Yet, few lead guitar virtuosos as talented as Moctar appear as tranquil as he does when he belts out his searing, soaring, intricate lead riffs.

Now in his late-30s, Moctar is a Tuareg musician based in Agadez in Niger. The genre of music he plays is known as tishoumaren, a fusion of blues and rock with Tuareg, Malian, and other North African music styles.

In the West, the genre is referred to as the desert blues. Songs are usually sung in Tamasheq, a variety of Tuareg. The guitar is the genre’s central instrument.

Tishoumaren is believed to come from the French “chômeur”, or unemployed. The Tuareg are a semi-nomadic pastoral ethnic group that inhabits Saharan regions in countries such as Mali, Niger, Morocco, Burkina Faso, southern Libya and southwestern Algeria.

Tuareg history is marked by rebellion against French colonialism, and massacres of their tribes, who were forced to flee their original settlements. In a post-colonial Africa, the Tuareg continued to clash with the armies of countries such as Mali and Niger. There have been violent clashes as recently as in 2012. Many have had to give up their traditional nomadic way of life. Their music, including tishoumaren, faces bans; musicians have been imprisoned and detained; some have lost their lives.

Moctar grew up in the mining town of Arlit. He took up the guitar as a child, inspired by the music of Niger’s Abdallah Oumbadougou, considered the godfather of the desert blues. Unsurprisingly, this music is highly political and often contains anti-establishment protest lyrics.

Niger’s Abdallah Oumbadougou (right), who is considered the godfather of tishoumaren. (Wikimedia Commons)
Niger’s Abdallah Oumbadougou (right), who is considered the godfather of tishoumaren. (Wikimedia Commons)

Moctar fashioned his first guitar out of bicycle cables and taught himself how to play it. Soon he was playing at weddings and sharing his music with local fans via Bluetooth. By 2008, he had recorded his first album locally, but it would be a while before he became internationally known.

Tishoumaren already was. It began to spread beyond Saharan Africa in the 1970s, via the prominent collective from Mali named Tinariwen (Tuareg for Desert People). In 2012, Tinariwen’s LP, Tassili (named for a plateau in the Sahara), even won the Grammy for Best World Music Album. But, that same year, Islamist factions in Mali banned their music and refused some of their members permission to travel abroad. Several were then imprisoned. This would have long-lasting effects on Tinariwen’s music, and on the tishoumaren genre in general.

On Moctar’s latest album, Funeral for Justice, released in May, the mood is certainly political. His fiery solos, which fuse Tuareg musical traditions with psychedelic rock and blues guitar riffs, are angry. The Tamasheq lyrics speak of political strife, rebellion and protest.

In the past, Moctar has been vocal about how uranium mining exploits the people of Niger. Uranium accounts for 75% of Niger’s exports but France, its former colonial ruler, still controls much of the deposits, using it as a source of electricity at home. Meanwhile, most Nigeriens still have no access to electricity.

On the opening track of his album, the lyrics address this directly, referring to how former occupiers exploit Niger’s domestic resources.

On the track Oh France, he sings in French about how devastating colonialism has been for his country and its people; on another track, Modern Slaves, he sings in Tamasheq but the title is self-explanatory. Tet another track is titled Imajighen, which means “free men”.

To most audiences outside his home region, the lyrics may not be decipherable. But Moctar’s angry riffs and spontaneous melodies leave even casual listeners with little doubt about the mood of his songs. The accompanying musicians, Mikey Coltun (bass), Souleymane Ibrahim (drums) and Ahmoudou Madassane (rhythm guitar), complement his vocals and riffs.

Funeral for Justice is Moctar’s sixth studio album. His previous one, Afrique Victime (2021) is also politically charged.

As a left-handed guitarist known for his electrifying riffs, Moctar is sometimes called the Hendrix of the Sahara. He is much more than that. Tishoumaren has always been a genre marked by the struggles of an ethnic community’s attempts to assert its identity. Moctar is today’s trailblazer of that movement.

(Watch out for Download Central every month. Write in to sanjoy.narayan@gmail.com)

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