Desert Blues


Graham Edmonson '24

Most Americans think of modern rock music as under the domain of the United States and England. However, across the world, in the barren landscape of the Saharan desert, an entirely new genre of guitar music has recently emerged that has begun to receive international recognition. This genre, known as Desert Blues or “assouf music,” was pioneered by an ethnic group called the Tuareg people. The Tuareg are traditionally nomadic pastoral people who live in the Sahara Desert. Traditional Tuareg or Tamashek music is based on two instruments: the tindé drum and the imzad (a one-stringed fiddle). Both of these instruments are played only by women. Men traditionally played the teherdent lute, shepherd’s flute, and sang and clapped their hands. The traditional music of this region is so influential that it is often noted to be one of the forces behind early American blues music. The Desert Blues genre is based off of this traditional Tuareg musical style but with one major difference: the western electric guitar. 

One of the pioneering Desert Blues acts is a band called Tinariwen, which was founded in 1979 by band leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib after he was inspired by a western film featuring a guitar-playing cowboy. Tinariwen, translating to “the people of the desert,” won a Grammy in 2011. They continue to make music and nearly all other Desert Blues acts cite them as inspiration. 

Another great Desert Blues act goes by the name Mdou Moctar. He is a Nigerian artist who is distinguished by his mastery of a left handed Fender stratocaster. Mdou learned his craft at an early age by practicing on a homemade instrument. Mdou made his U.K. debut in 2015, but songs from his 2008 album Anar had already spread across the Sahara through cell phone memory card and bluetooth trading networks. In 2011, the Portland record label Sahara Sounds commemorated this trading method with a compilation album called Music From Saharan Cellphones

Both Tinariwen and Mdou Moctar, like many other Desert Blues artists, often sing about the political struggles their people face. “I sing about the divisions the Tuareg people face. Still, even with borders, music can keep us together,” said Mdou in an interview. During the 1960’s, Tuareg lands were divided between Libya, Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. This created a fractured independence that restricted the Tuareg’s movement and resources. To this day protest music helps solidify a strong identity for these divided people. 

The Desert Blues guitar style of the Tuareg people that has emerged over the last half-century is incredibly unique. The use of the western guitar with traditional Tamashek music has led to some impeccable guitar music that makes Tuareg culture appealing to the modern rock music listener. These are a few notable acts worth checking out: Tinariwen, Mdou Moctar, Etran Finatawa, Terakaft, Tamikrest, Bombino, Daraa Tribes, Imarhan.