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SoundTreks: Saharan Blues

by Rachel Devitt

SoundTreks: Saharan Blues


Welcome to SoundTreks, our new (well, revamped) column that takes you on a sonic tour through musical scenes and styles from around the globe. Whether you're an international rookie aching to hear something new, a diehard world nerd or just an equal-opportunity crate-digger, this is the column for you. Start trekking!

In this edition of SoundTreks, we explore a movement known by several names: desert blues, desert rock or Saharan blues. Though that's somewhat amorphous and ambiguous, what we're basically talking about are the entrancing, sometimes melancholy, and often downright trippy grooves hewn when musicians from the Saharan desert region began filtering traditional folk music through blues and psychedelic rock. Those amorphous and ambiguous boundaries are appropriate, actually, as desert blues was created by members of traditionally nomadic cultures like the Woodabe and, especially, the Touareg (or as they call themselves, Kel Tamasheq) people, who have been historically persecuted by the nations surrounding the Sahara and often forced to live in exile from their homelands.

Desert blues is an integral part of that historic struggle: many of the scene's most brilliant stars honed their craft in revolutionary training camps or learned electric guitar in refugee tent cities. The music they create often speaks to the realities of their lives: the lyrics are sometimes virulently (though more often mournfully) politicized. Chanting choruses evoke the communality found within the struggle, while women's voices keen and ululate above. Small armies of guitars echo and ring as if stretching toward an ever-elusive horizon. Often steeped in ceremonial traditions and governed by rolling drums, the songs move with a slow, sweltering grace. And all of it pulses with an ineffably rock 'n' roll heartbeat.

The result is a powerful experience that audiences both within and outside Africa quickly succumbed to when the first desert blues bands started releasing records and touring internationally in the late '80s and early '90s. Groups like Tinariwen, Etran Finatawa, and Tartit trace and retrace the path and passage of the blues and its children (rock, soul, even pop and hip-hop) back and forth across Africa, Europe and the Americas, each one putting its own particular spin on the journey.