Music

Exploring Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara

Photo: Tuareg Dance / Courtesy of the Moses and Frances Asch Collection / Courtesy of the Smithsonian

A vinyl reissue of Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara sheds light on the folk origins of today's thriving Saharan rock scene.

Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara
Various Artists

Smithsonian Folkways

31 January 2020

Today, "Tuareg music" is such a common concept in the global music mainstream that the term is already outdated. Kel Tamasheq, one of the names that performers of said music have long used to describe themselves and other members of their transnational Saharan community, is finally beginning to take precedence, and rightfully so. After all, as the liner notes of Smithsonian Folkways' groundbreaking 1960 release Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara point out, one possible origin for the name Tuareg is that it comes from the Arabic for "the abandoned of God".

Now, Folkways reissues Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara, liner notes and all, as part of its aptly named Smithsonian Folkways Vinyl Reissue Series, and it makes for a fascinating look at the roots of Western musical interaction with the Kel Tamasheq. Recordings of love songs, hunting songs, camel songs, dance music (dance, per the liner notes, having come not from longstanding Kel Tamasheq traditions, but enslaved Africans of other cultural origins), and other performances of men and women give us a chance to understand the distant roots of contemporary superstars like Tinariwen, Bombino, and Mdou Moctar.

Field recordings, of course, are useless in an academic sense without context, which the (at times dated) liner notes of Tuareg Music give us in spades. An overview of Kel Tamasheq culture written by Finola and Geoffrey Holiday begins with an explanation recorded by 19th-century French explorer Henry Duveyrier of the many names the Kel Tamasheq use within their communities. "All of these words derive from the same root," says the unnamed informant, "the verb iohargh, which means: it is free, it is pure, it is independent."

To the Holidays, this point is foundational to their discussions of history and culture, as well as to how they frame each recording in detailed descriptions of the form and function. Generally, these dwell on difference, such as how the Kel Tamasheq are different from other North African communities. The Kel Tamasheq, say the Holidays, are "Muslim in name only", their spiritual practices a "curious mixture of animism and anthropomorphism", their marriages monogamous "in spite of… lip-service to Islam". This kind of othering is certainly not unexpected from the 50-year-old notes of researchers, and it would, perhaps, be disingenuous not to include them in the reissue. For Smithsonian Folkways, though, it seems an oversight not to include the viewpoints of contemporary scholars reflecting on the original Holiday analyses.

Musically, this is an outstandingly atmospheric collection, instrumentals and songs alike raw and relatively clear (though the audio quality is expectedly and inevitably vintage). A history of nomadic movement means that the sonic emphasis here is on the portable: the violin-like imzhad, tendi drums and other percussion, and above all, voices. A sense of Kel Tamasheq group life is at the forefront, the sonic presence of whole groups audible in most recordings. This visceral sense of spatial dynamics is what makes these field recordings so valuable for a broader listening public.

Photo: Tuareg men playing tendi / Courtesy of the Moses and Frances Asch Collection / Courtesy of the Smithsonian

Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara makes sense as a reissue, given the reliable popularity of Kel Tamasheq popular music artists and given the range of information the recording communicates through sound, word, and the occasional exceptional black and white picture. It would make a little more sense, perhaps, with updated notes on Kel Tamasheq culture - maybe even by a Kel Tamasheq individual. With that said, including the original liner notes of Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara does allow for reflection on the history not just of the Kel Tamasheq, but of Western humanities-centered fieldwork, which has its place. The sound, more importantly, is still immersive, still impressive half a century later, and it's thrilling to think of what old lessons the team at Smithsonian Folkways plans to teach us through music as the vinyl reissues continue.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.