No one quite knows for sure where the nomadic Touareg, or Kel Tamashek as they call themselves, came from originally. Sometime between the eighth and twelfth centuries AD, they migrated south and populated the vast plains and remote mountain ranges of the southern Sahara desert. They brought their Berber, or Amazigh, culture with them and today it is clearly evident in their language, Tamashek, and their matriarchal society. These roots also explain the Tamashek people’s profound attachment to music and poetry.
The two instruments that form the bedrock of traditional Tamashek music are the tindé drum, and a one-stringed fiddle called an imzad. Both are the strict preserve of women. Men content themselves with the teherdent lute, the shepherd’s flute, singing and handclaps. They also express themselves with sword dances and camel parades.
Traditional tindé troupes and imzad virtuosi are legion, but the group that has most successfully brought these traditional sounds to a worldwide audience are the Tartit Ensemble from the Timbuktu region, led by the charismatic and determined Fadimata Walet Oumar, aka “Disco”.
Tartit, which means “Union”, was formed in the Mauritanian refugee camps which gave the people of northern Mali sanctuary during the bitterest years of the Touareg rebellion in the early 1990s. Their music is a traditional response to modern hardships. In contrast, Tinariwen, who come from an area called the Adrar des Iforas in the far northeastern corner of Mali, swapped their traditional instruments for guitars in the late 1970s and early 80s. Their founder and leader, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, is credited with inventing the modern rock-generation style of Tamashek music, which has become known simply as “guitar”. The band formed in Tamanrasset in 1979, and they developed their music in military camps set up in Libya by Colonel Ghaddafi to train young Tamashek men how to fight. During the rebellion Tinariwen became the pied pipers of the rebel movement, and their songs galvanized the young dispossessed Tamashek youth, who were living the clandestino life in Algeria or Libya, into concerted revolt.
Since the first Festival in the Desert in 2001, Tinariwen have become global musical nomads, taking their message of desert pride to the four corners of the earth. Further east in the desert of northern Niger, a singer and guitarist called Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou, a.k.a. Abdallah du Niger, is a skilful exponent of that same desert guitar style. His collaboration with the French composer and musical visionary Philippe Eidel on the score of the 1997 film Imuhar, unelégende remains a crucial signpost to potential future styles of Tamashek music. The score was enhanced by the participation of the wonderful Groupe Oyiwane, a musical collective of long standing from northern Niger.
Abdallah du Niger is re-emerging onto an international stage as part of a new Franco-Nigerien project called Desert Rebelle, which involves notable France-based artists like Tryo, Gnawa Diffusion, Mano Negra, Sally Nyolo and IAM and friends from northern Niger. Other Tamashek groups from Mali and Niger that deserve notice, and a recording deal, are Tarbiat, Telouat and Tidawt. Moving north, Tamanrasset, the oasis in the southern Algerian desert which is the closest thing the Tamashek people have to a capital city, has a surprisingly prolific music scene.
But there’s one musical clan that dominates this part of the world: the Othmani family from Djanet in the Tassilli ’n’ Ajjer region. Baly Othmani, an oud player and vocalist of renown, almost single-handedly lifted Tamashek music out of obscurity in the 1990s, with the help of the roving American musician and composer Steve Shehan. The clan matriarch Khadija Othmani is a poet and singer of rare qualities, and she reigns over a family which boasts generations of accomplished singers and musicians. Many of them perform on an extraordinary CD entitled Ikewan, or “Touareg Memories”. All lovers of Tamashek music were shocked by news of the death of Baly Othmani in June 2005. He was swept away by a flash flood brought on by one of the torrential downpours that curse and bless this most arid of landscapes during the brief annual rainy season.