Friday, February 19, 2010

Three at a time please.

The guitar soiree is the quinessential to the modern Tamashek. At least a few times in a week a festival will be organized -- be it a marriage, a baptism, or simply a concert. As the first stars appear in the sky, the guitar can be heard wafting over the city. "Listen..." heads tilt, to ascertain the sound. "Radio? No, definitely guitar..."

The guests, the women in glittering shawls, the young men in new turbans and sporting leather jackets assemble on the ornate rugs on opposing sides. In the center lies a section a few meters squared. This is the dancefloor. The first group is announced over the microphone to come forward as the band strikes a few chords, and groups of men rush forward. There is usually disagreement, as six young men stubbornly claim their place. "Three people only, please," the announcer begs. The band waits patiently for concession. "Merci," the announcer sighs, and the music begins. There is some bustle in the crowd of women before a few jump up. The dance is a simple two step from side to side, although it occurs on a counter beat, and the dancers dance in place, facing one another yet seperated by a good meter, moving their arms about in striking poses. At some point in the song, the refrain, both sides step forward and and dance close to one another, before passing and changing sides on the square. The music ends, the six dancers rush back to their places.

Group Amanar at a small concert in Essouk. (myspace link)

The guitar soiree is the forum for Tamashek guitar music. It's rather nonparticipatory -- after all, everyone wants to dance -- but it is just as much an opportunity to be seen. The first guitar soirees came in the 1990s. Prior to that the guitar cassettes were more likely to be heard blaring throughout the speakers in Libyan military camps.

In some ways, the precendent of the guitar could be seen as the tahardint, the traditional guitar, and the takamba. The takamba is a style of tahardint with a distinctive rhythm pounded on a calabas. It is a fast sound and paradoxically a painfully slow dance. The format of the soirees are similar, but the dancing is slower, ghostly, and more eloquent.

Takamba from Ali Ag Moman, Timbouctou.

Yet the music that probably comes closest to the guitar is iswatt. Iswatt incidentally is a noninstrumental music. The sound is created by a rhythmic clapping accompanied by foot stomping, a constant low frequency male humming and grunts, and a female singing ("the five instruments of iswatt," a friend proclaims). The crowd forms a circle and pairs of dancers enter admist the energectic hand clapping. The dancing is fast, arms flailing, dust raising, and with billowing robes. The dancers drop to the ground and jump into the air.

If the guitar is the music of ville, isawatt, even today, continues to be a music of the brousse. In the rainy season, a few people will sneak away into the darkness, far away from the tents and begin singing. The others will hear and come together, following the echoes through the dark night. In that way at least, things are not so different.

Iswatt "demonstration" by children en brousse.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

That ain't workin', that's the way you do it...

The Tuaregs consist of a variety of tribes, stretching across the center of the Saharan desert, East of Mauritania, across Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya. In the past, the Western association was with "blue men" in the desert, the fierce resistance to colonization, the romantic myth of the desert nomad. Today it is impossible for the West to speak of Tuareg without the obligatory reference to the Tuareg guitar.

Koma and Attaye, two acoustic guitars in Kidal

The Tamashek guitar, or "ishumar" (A French deriviation of chômeur, or "unemployed") was borne in the rebellion. After the first rebellion, the youth that had left for Libya for military training in the war with Chad returned to Mali -- without any education or opportunity.

Interview with Initriy and Tahieat (French)

Origins are difficult to ascertain, but Tinariwen of Tessalit, Mali are popularly considered the pioneers. The music of Tinariwen is traded across Mali, via the Tamashek. Numbering only 600,000 but stretching over thousands of kilometers -- the Malian Tamashek community is like a small town, and everyone knows everyone. But the heart is definitely in the North of the country.

Ishumar guitar music is preferrably played with the electric guitar (for its responsive touch, both solo and rhythm) bass, percussion (calabas, djembe, or drum kit), and singing and hand claps. It is almost always played in a pentatonic scale (familiar immediately for the "blues" component), with a droning bass note and syncopated treble that accompanies the singing. One chord is often sufficient. but with tremolos and impressive solos. A friend remarks that tremolo of "false" notes are what seperate Tamashek guitar from Sonrai guitar. "It plays better with the way they speak." And certaintly, the language Tamashek is full of bent and uluated vowels, placing it closer to Arabic in sound then with its cousins to the South. While the music has certain roots in traditional Tamashek guitar, the influence of Western music (cassettes of Bob Marley and Jimmy Hendrix most substantially) cannot be ignored. And today, as is common throughout the Sahara, the favorite guitarist amongst the younger generation: Dire Straits.

Talking with a former rebel/musician: "Dire Straits is the number one guitarist for the Tamashek. If he held a concert the Tuareg - Algeria, Libya, Niger - would come to Kidal." Mark Knopfler, are you listening?

Abba and Ahmedou Ag with acoustic guitar, Timbouctuo, 2, 3,

Sarid Ag and Doni with electric guitar, Kidal, 2

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A million and one stars

The desert north of the river Niger is a scrubby dry place. Along the border with Mauritanian and Mali, there are a mixture of Maurs, Berbiche, and Tamashek (Tuareg). I meet a group of Kalashnikov carrying youths (military). The zone is in a state of continuous tension, as rebel raids have been frequent and recent as a few months ago. There is a clear division between the Bambara and the Tamashek officers, even though this is likely to be denied.

Ag Said singing independence songs in the truck

I stay a few days in Gargando, a tiny and unassuming village, known in the region primarily for it's brackish water. The youth have come back for vacation. In the late evening, we sit around and play songs on my guitar.

Night Soiree with youth

Night Soiree 2

Night Soiree 3

During the day, the heat is too oppressive to move. Later, by the afternoon, there is millet to pound and cows to feed. But there is lot of time to sit around too and play with the microphone.

Young girl raps (in tamashek)

Unknown song

At night, under the stars, the old bearded patriarch Abdullahi tells me, in a deep cinematic voice: "In America you sleep in five star hotels. Here in the desert, we have a million and one." And his laugh bellows out over the white sand.

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Desert's Guitars

Moudou ould Mattalla is Chinguetti's most well known musician. Originally from Zourate, on the border with Algeria, he lives in the village and shares his knowledge with whoever is passing through. He released a CD that is sold in France, that was recorded in his home. In his "music room," the walls are literally covered with pen markings, the different tunings and scales corresponding to each mode of Mauritanian music.

Moudou demonstrating the mode Al-Lebait

Collaborative jam session with a drum machine

Improvisation over Ali Farka Toure song

Modou playing in soiree

Ambient recordings from a party

Ahmed Imbend is a talented self taught musician. "My first guitar, I made when I was a kid. It had one string. Eventually, I got bored, and added another string. I just kept adding strings."

Today, he plays an old student sized Spanish guitar. In the typical DIY fashion, one of the strings is made from a bicycle cable, the transducer pickup is from a telephone, and the amplifier is a stereo with it's leads spliced. He plays with an alternate tuning (E-Ab-Db-E-Ab-Db) that owes a great deal to the tidnit.

Ahmed with homemade "jagwa"

Ahmed "blues"

Ahmed chinguetti song

modified pickup

riff with tapping

Lastly, at an Auberge in the old city across the wadi, a woman's group is assembled and singing for a group of French tourists.

Traditional Moor song

Unidentified chant

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