A Guide to North African Desert Blues in 10 Songs

Human settlements, including the extensive Tuareg population, have existed across the arid Sahara Desert for centuries
Human settlements, including the extensive Tuareg population, have existed across the arid Sahara Desert for centuries | © Lewis Parsons / Unsplash
The desert blues remains the defiant link between the rich and varied settlements of the Sahel and the Sahara. Even in the face of political unrest and clashing philosophies, these 10 modern desert blues acts continue to forge paths across Northern Africa, ensuring that this shared musical culture remains a vital and globally recognised community.

The Sahara Desert is the largest hot landscape on the planet, encompassing an area of over 9 million square kilometres, roughly equivalent to the size of the USA. It links the Maghreb around the Atlas Mountains with the ancient civilisation of Egypt, the salt mines of Mali with the vast lake Chad in the centre and the Red Sea in the east with the Atlantic Ocean in the west, via the vast tropical savannah of the Sahel Region.

Despite being largely barren due to a lack of rainfall – and marked by seemingly endless sand dunes – human settlements, including the extensive Tuareg population, have existed across this arid territory for centuries. Among them, a vibrant musical culture is shared. So influential is the traditional music of this region, that it is acknowledged as one of the primary sources of what would become known as blues music in America in the early 1900s.

Modern-day “desert blues” (also called assouf music) is in some part a reciprocation of that relationship with America. While traditional instruments such as the violin-like imzad and the tende drum are still present alongside percussive rhythms and call-and-response vocals, the genre is categorised by the use of a decidedly modern Western instrument: the electric guitar.

Tinariwen

Tinariwen’s influence is so widespread that almost every other act on this list calls them either inspiration or family. They are the living embodiment of North Africa’s desert blues (their name literally translates as “the people of the desert”), having single-handedly taken the scene worldwide and even won a Grammy during their emphatic 40-year career.

Tinariwen formed in 1979 in Tamanrasset, Algeria, after band leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib was inspired by a western film that featured a guitar-playing cowboy. The band have gone on to conquer such diverse international stages as California’s Coachella, Japan’s Fuji Rocks and Germany’s Roskilde, while also establishing their own Festival au Désert in Mali in 2001.

Recent albums Elwan and Amadjar, released in 2017 and 2019 respectively, feature collaborations with such reputable names as American guitarists Cass McCombs and Kurt Vile, Australian maverick Warren Ellis and vocalist Mark Lanegan.

Etran Finatawa

Etran Finatawa is made up of both Saharan Tuareg musicians, who traditionally roamed the cattle routes of the Sahara, and Wodaabe people – perceived as a wilder counterpart population and traditionally made up of nomadic cattle-herders. The two groups cross over in Niger, where Etran Finatawa formed in 2004 as an attempt to provide an olive branch between the historic disharmony between the two groups. When the band appeared at the Festival au Désert that year, it was one of the first times musicians from the two distinct backgrounds were publicly observed performing together.

The band’s music is notably laid-back, with traditional Wodaabe chants and hand claps partnering the contemporary, blues-inspired, guitar music. They have four full-length albums to their name but are notable in 2020 for their presence on ‘Etran’, a track by British dance duo Disclosure. The woozy, psychedelic dance number heavily samples ‘Heeme’, a percussive vocal number that closes the band’s 2006 BBC World Music Award-winning debut album.

Terakaft

“Different people, same story,” says Terakaft of the comparisons between them and fellow Tuareg band Tinariwen, though the relationship between the two acts is closer than they suggest. Both former Terakaft leader Kedhou ag Ossad and guitarist Diara were once members of the famous collective, with the former being the source of much of their legend and mystique.

Kedhou ag Ossad (nicknamed The Giant) was heavily involved in the 1990 rebellion in Mali, where Tuareg separatists attempted to gain independence from the state. If the rumours are to be believed, Kedhou was known for running into battle with a guitar strapped to his back. He was shot a reported 17 times during the violence and declared dead several times on Radio France Internationale.

His bandmate Diara, meanwhile, quit Tinariwen shortly after they achieved international recognition in 2000 after he missed a plane journey. He formed the offshoot Terakaft with Kedhou ag Ossad and Sanou ag Ahmed, performing live for the first time at the 2007 edition of Mali’s Festival au Désert.

Tamikrest

The five members of Tamikrest attended the Les enfants de l’Adrar school in Tinzaouaten, a small desert oasis on the border of Mali and Algeria, where they discovered the music of Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Dire Straits. Originally a covers band, performing the songs of Tinariwen alongside traditional Tuareg music, they were labelled “children of Tinariwen” alongside contemporaries Bombino and Mdou Moctar, before carving out their own niche with brooding guitar jams such as ‘Tisnant and Chatma’, a song that honours the ongoing struggles of the Tuareg women.

On their fifth album Tamotaït, which was recorded during a tour of Japan in 2019, the band enlists the help of Moroccan vocalist Hindi Zahra on the single ‘Timtarin’, as well as Japanese musicians Atsushi Sakta and Oki Kano on ‘Tabsit’.

Bombino

Singer-songwriter Omara Bombino Moctar was displaced from his native Niger at the age of 10 in 1990 after Tuareg separatists violently clashed with government forces. He fled to neighbouring Algeria, where he met renowned guitarist Haja Bebe – a mentor who inspired Bombino to hone his skills on a guitar left to him by visiting family members.

After a second Tuareg rebellion in 2007 resulted in guitar music being banned in Niger, Bombino became determined to use music “to encourage people towards peace and joy and away from war and conflict”. When peace was restored in 2010 he was invited to take part in a celebratory concert at the base of the Grand Mosque in Agadez, performing to thousands of people with the blessing of the Nigerien sultan.

He has since been described as “the Hendrix of the Sahel” and “the sultan of shred” by The New York Times, and he became the first Nigerien to be nominated for a Grammy in 2018 with the release of the album Deran, which was recorded in Casablanca in a studio owned by the king of Morocco.

Daraa Tribes

The five members of Daraa Tribes each hail from a different clan of the Daraa River Valley of Morocco, and their music is a love letter to both the cultures of their ancestors and the unique Saharan Blues of the oasis town of Tagounite. Vocals blend Moroccan Arabic, Saharan Arabic and the indigenous North African language Tamazight, but it is the trilling guitars on tracks such as 2019’s ‘Lakhlag’ that provide the band’s most immediate and catchy hooks.

Like the rest of the Zamane EP, ‘Lakhlag’ is full of grooving rhythms and sand-brushed melodies designed to evoke “joy and love” from the listener. Even ‘Daraa Zamane’, which band member Mustapha Aqermim claims is inspired by the woes of lives transformed by climate change and drought, is a celebratory foot-stomper that says plenty about the optimistic nature of the musicians behind it.

Imarhan

Cited by Daraa Tribes as a key influence on their sound, Imarhan are a vibrant desert rock band hailing from the fruit-growing oasis city of Tamanrasset, deep within the Algerian Ahaggar Mountains. A primary location for the country’s Tuareg population, the spirit of the city flows through Imarhan’s music in a funky fusion of cowbells, Nile Rodgers-style guitars and rollicking desert riffs, as underlined on songs such as ‘Azzaman’ and Tahabort’.

On their self-titled 2016 debut album, Imarhan represents a generation of Tuaregs connected to the wider world through the internet and mobile phone technology. Their new wave of Tuareg music merges these dynamic, urban influences with the Tamashek (Tuareg language) poetry of their elders, and their often uplifting and celebratory style highlights the band’s self-professed emphasis on the importance of community care and support.

Mdou Moctar

Imarhan made their UK debut at London’s Cafe OTO in 2015 as the support act for another ‘child of Tinariwen’ – Nigerien artist Mdou Moctar. A distinguished electric guitar player recognised for his mastery of a left-handed Fender Stratocaster, he originally learned his craft practising on a home-made instrument as a child.

Moctar’s early music is notable for the methods through which it found its audience. Songs from the 2008 album Anar were spread throughout Western Africa via mobile phone memory cards and Bluetooth transfers. Since personal computers were a luxury at the time, mobile phones were the de facto all-purpose multimedia device, and this practice of music sharing would be commemorated by Portland label Sahel Sounds in 2011 with the compilation album ‘Music From Saharan Cellphones’.

Moctar’s own ‘Tahoultine’, a track featuring an electronic beat and a distinctive auto-tuned vocal, is a standout cut from the release, and the label has gone on to release a series of the artists’ records internationally – with the fiery riffs of 2020 single ‘Ibitlan’ serving as the most recent highlight.

Amanar

Fellow Sahel Sounds alumni Amanar offer a frenetic twist on the classic Tuareg guitar sound. Their heavily blues-influenced track ‘Alghafiat’ featured on the inaugural ‘Music From Saharan Cellphones’ compilation in 2011, while the band’s album of the same name was released by the label the year prior. The word translates to “peace” – a title that alludes to the hostile conditions under which the album was recorded.

Ahmed Ag Kaedy and his bandmates originally hail from Kidal in Northern Mali but were displaced due to conflicts posed by Islamic jihadists and the implementation of Sharia Law. Some of the oppressive measures introduced included the total ban of music, which makes Ag Kaedy and his contemporaries’ efforts to promote education, a united community and other Tuareg aspirations through music all the more heroic.

The effect of these conflicts on artists such as Amanar was notably explored in a documentary by Joanna Schwartz titled They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile, which premiered at Texas arts festival SXSW in 2015.

Songhoy Blues

Bamako’s Songhoy Blues are the stars of the aforementioned Joanna Schwartz documentary, and one of the most successful Malian exports of the past decade. They are distinguished from their contemporaries by their contemporary sound and decidedly international career path, which was spurred by their association with Africa Express, a charitable organisation spearheaded by Blur frontman Damon Albarn.

Songhoy Blues’ track ‘Soubour’ was released on Africa Express’s Maison Des Jeunes compilation in 2013, which effectively served to introduce them to the wider world. Produced by Nick Zinner, the guitarist for New York garage-punk band Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the single presented a unique mash-up of Malian grooves, call-and-response vocal chants, Hendrix-inspired guitar licks and modern alt-rock production.

When the critically acclaimed and globally distributed album Music In Exile followed shortly after, the plight of oppressed Malians by the armed Islamist jihadists was able to be shared on such revered stages as New York’s Bowery Ballroom, London’s Royal Albert Hall and Glastonbury Festival. In 2019 their EP Meet Me In The City was released in conjunction with London’s Imperial War Museum exhibition Rebel Sounds, which focussed on the band as an example of triumphant resistance culture amid civil conflict.