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Sounds of the world : The roughness of Tuareg music

In the 2021 Grammy Awards, the Tuareg music group Tinariwen was nominated in the category “best world music album”.  Often represented in a mysterious way, Tuareg music is still insufficiently known globally. Commonly known as the blue men, there are a million and a half Tuaregs living between 5 different countries at the gates of the Sahara, divided into several tribes. What musical influences can we find in these spaces?


A female musical heritage

First of all, the Tuareg come from different origins, mainly a mixture between Mali, Algeria, Niger and Burkina Faso. They sing mostly in Berber tamajeq and their music is played mainly by women. This nomadic people operate on a matrilineal system : that is to say that goods are owned by women and transmitted between them.

It’s therefore women who play the two main instruments of Tuareg music, the tende and the imzad.  The tende is a drum made from goatskin on a mortar for singing, and the imzad is a one-string fiddle. Chants using tende often include female choirs and a soloist responding to the choir.


An openness to modernity

In the 1970s, the appearance of the acoustic guitar entered Tuareg communities marking a change in their music. This was followed by the arrival of the electric guitar a little later, leaving a monopoly to men. The instrument gained momentum and allowed a reappropriation of the Tuareg musical repertoire. Some women have tried to defy the prohibitions by taking over the use of the guitar, like the band Les Filles de Illighadad. Their music is a hybrid, halfway between tradition and modernity that employs electric guitar and reuses traditional instruments in a form of homage to their culture. The group has been invited around the world and has already performed on several international scenes. The international export of Tuareg music breaks the cliché of being an exclusively local music. However, this practice largely remains reserved for men. 

In May 2021, Les Filles de Illighadad have released a new album At Pioneer Works, recorded before the health crisis. This album, at the crossroads of blues, folk and traditional music, is a breath of fresh air. Through the sounds of the world, their music addresses the themes of love, war, the condition of women and the daily challenges of Tuareg life.


A political and revolutionary message

The recurring themes of the songs are Africa “without borders”, the living conditions of nomads and their political demands. This music is considered a pillar of the revolutionary conception. Born during the independence revolutions of the 1970s, the turning point in Tuareg music seems to a large extent to support the Tuareg musical rebellion. Kader Tarhanin, Tuareg artist, testifies « Every day we learn of the death of our loved ones because of the conflicts in the region. » Today, the particularity of Tuareg artists is to transform music with cultural sounds into modern music in line with the political claims of its time.


Kader Tarhanin and Sidiki Diabaté


the author :

Mohamed Chaia is a french first year student at Sciences Po Paris at the Europe-Africa programme. He grew up in the small town of Vaulx-en-Velin in Lyon, and is passionate about arts and music.  He has been practicing piano and singing for a few years and more recently has been specializing in afrobeats hip hop dance. He would later like to produce his own fiction around life in working-class french neighborhoods and musical practices, in a mini-series format. His sensitivity to social precarity issues led him to found the Coeur Banlieu’Zhar association that supports people in need by distributing food every weekend.

photo :
Les Filles de Illighadad © Facebook Sahel Sounds


Cet article en anglais est le résultat d’un projet collaboratif entre #AuxSons et Alejandro Abbud Torres Torija, professeur à Sciences Po Paris Campus Reims, et contributeur régulier d’#AuxSons. Dans le cadre du cours “Sons du monde : la musique comme miroir de l’intime et du collectif” des étudiants internationaux de Sciences Po Paris Campus Reims se sont penchés sur les liens entre musiques des quatre coins du monde et enjeux sociopolitiques. 

This article is a result of a collaborative project between #AuxSons and Alejandro Abbud Torres Torija, lecturer at Sciences Po Paris Campus Reims, and regular contributor to #AuxSons. As part of the class “Sounds of the world : Music as mirror of the intimate and the collective”, international students from Sciences Po Paris Campus Reims prepared articles presenting contemporary music from different parts of the world in connection with recent socio-political events.

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