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Contemporary Tuareg Music and the Pursuit of History

Crafting a Political Identity

By Bonnie Bates.

We, the children of the Azawad

What pleases us? The unity of the people

We ask our people to let harmony reign

We ask the children to work for freedom

Our history is written in the mountains,

They are our guardians

Because of it our elders died

And the children became the guardians

Children, study! What stops you?

The Tamasheq language,

Tifinagh are a great testament

Pursue your history

(Terakaft, “Aratan N Azawad”)


Photo credit: Hamed Askari, for Tinariwen

Photo credit: Hamed Askari, for Tinariwen

Tuareg* oral histories recount their ancestry and clan lines, their role in developing trade networks within and across the desert, and their battles and fight to survive in one of the most severe regions of Africa, if not the world. The modern history of the Tuareg has included new terrorizations of colonialism, civil war, displacement, famine and sedentarisation, which have served to challenge Tuareg identity. How does contemporary Tuareg music reflect and interpret Tuareg history? Are the bands Tamikrest, Terakaft, Toumast and Tinariwen performing oral history, pursuing history for a new generation; or are they advancing new political paths for this ancient Saharan people?

As holders of their history and teachers of their culture, it is Tuareg women who pass on lessons orally from one generation to another through poetry and song, so that children will know their history, connect with their culture, and continue to proudly represent their Tuareg identity. Poems and songs are not written, as oral transmission in Tamasheq is considered the most secure and respectful method of communicating their culture and history. Unfortunately this has resulted in the poems and songs of earlier centuries being lost.

Ownership of songs and poems is also collective. While a performer will recognize the original composer, she is free to embellish and add to the song or poem. In this way, poems and songs document the past but they are also a living history, growing and changing with the lived experiences of the Tuareg people. While perhaps not an archive in a traditional western sense, this collection of oral history is a rich source for the study of Tuareg culture and identity (Seligman and Loughran, 31-32).

The imposition of colonial rule imposed borders that shackled the Tuareg, who viewed their absolute freedom within the Sahara as their birthright. Tuareg anger intensified as former colonies achieved their independence in the 1960’s. For the Tuareg, the new African leaders were continuing the occupation of Tuareg traditional lands; colonialism remained a reality, the colonial masters having simply changed from European to African. Nationalism was now a driving force to unite the populations of these nascent countries. New measures were enacted with the intention of creating uniformity and equality of status, ethnicity and language across each new country. Such created identities were imposed on the Tuareg, who were neither consulted nor included in the formulation of these identities and the political structures of new Saharan nations.

The Tuareg have historically not been a united population. Diversity of clans, confederations, class and geography created divisions, maintained through the respect of family history, honour and identity. But through their shared experience of occupation, war, displacement, forced sedentarisation and famine, all of which have terrorized the traditional Tuareg way of life, a shared political goal has formed. The Tuareg seek the recognition of their history and culture as indigenous people of the Sahara. They are looking for their traditional territory to be recognized and their right to self-government realized. This includes the right to economic control, utilizing both their traditional knowledge of the Sahara and contemporary technology to secure the natural resources below the Saharan sands (Al-Jazeera, Orphans of the Sahara). While such a political position has resulted in the many Tuareg uprisings against the African governments of the Sahara, there is a growing recognition that rapprochement is required to solve this longstanding dispute (Lecoq). The Tuareg are turning to their culture to advance their political goals.

Tamikrest, Terakraft, Toumast and Tinariwen are pursuing history by crafting lyrics that recall Tuareg history and culture. They are working to bridge the divisions amongst the Tuareg in order to unite the Tuareg people around their shared political goals of recognition and autonomy. Their lyrics recall the glories of Tuareg history, not as nostalgia, but as a reminder that the Tuareg have a noble history that can continue to serve them in the present. Despite the blows to their honour brought about by unemployment, displacement, and poverty, the Tuareg are called to unite and reclaim their power. These songs remind the Tuareg, no matter where they live, to be proud of their history, culture and identity, and to join the collective political struggle. These bands are combining the Tuareg tradition of verbal art performance with modern musical instruments and performance style, in order to promote the Tuareg political cause to the world.

The songs of Tamikrest, Terakraft, Toumast and Tinariwen draw on political themes that reflect the history of the Tuareg people. Their lyrics are evidence of their personal histories marked by war and displacement, and the deceit and disappointment in failed leaders and uprisings (Lecoq). The message in the lyrics of these groups is one of collective ownership; instead of placing faith in one leader, all Tuareg, men and women, located all over the world, must unite and utilize the channels available to them to mobilize for the realization of Tuareg political and cultural rights. The tradition of Tuareg music and verbal art performance is being repurposed in pursuit of these political goals.

The Tuareg are fighting for both their political rights and the recognition of their culture. Theirs is a global fight, in that they are battling the many governments of the Saharan nations, as well as seeking support on the broader global stage. Tamikrest, Terakraft, Toumast and Tinariwen are helping to advance this quest, as they disseminate the Tuareg message through their concerts, albums and interviews around the world. The Tuareg are attempting to reclaim their identity to ensure it is not lost nor subsumed into the many other cultures of Saharan Africa. The concept of globalization is further evidenced by the increased number of international actors in the Sahara. From the United States to mining companies to Al-Qaeda, these foreign actors represent new occupations of their ancestral land. While some Tuareg see armed response as the solution to such incursions, there is a broader appeal to unity to reject historic divisions in order to realize the political project of self-government. Historically, Tuareg “nationhood” has not been synonymous with the western definition of nation or state. The lyrics of Tamikrest, Terakraft, Toumast and Tinariwen inspire the Tuareg to both imagine and work to realize the political autonomy of their people.

These bands are pursuing Tuareg history in order to advance the political goals of cultural recognition, self-government and economic empowerment of the Tuareg people. The traditional Tuareg verbal art performance has moved from the camp to the global stage, reflecting the displacement of Tuareg out of their Saharan homelands. These contemporary musical performances are calling the Tuareg to unite and inviting allies to assist in the struggle for political rights. The indigenous aesthetic traditions of the Tuareg continue to mark their identity, as it is this unique identity and culture that are being promoted as a force for unity and power in the modern global arena. Replacing the gun with the guitar, these bands are utilizing the power of music to advance Tuareg political goals and reach new audiences, reinventing Tuareg traditional verbal art and inverting the directional force of globalization. In committing their lyrics to paper, vinyl and electronic files, these bands are both breaking with tradition and creating an original archive; a new way to read and access Tuareg history and culture by audiences around the world.

I am desperate and my heart burns

To learn that my people are divided

The army shoots, everyone shoots, will shoot

Revolution is a difficult challenge

You must do it with integrity

To achieve its goal

I say this to my people

I beg you, remember that unity

Is worth more than disunity

(Terakaft, “Tirera”)

  * It needs to be noted from the outset that Tuareg is the name applied by outsiders to this group of people. A Tuareg will either use the collective noun Imazeghen, describe themselves as a Kel Tamasheq (a Tamasheq-speaking person) or the name of their clan confederation, such as Kel Adrar. The term Tuareg is being used here as it is how this group and their political identity are known to the outside world.                                                      


Tamikrest. Chatma. Nouzov. Glitter Beat, 2013. CD

________. Toumastin. Glitter House Records, 2011. CD

Terakaft. Aratan N Azawad. World Village, 2011. CD

_______. Kel Tamasheq. World Village, 2012. CD

Tinariwen. Amassakoul. Tribal Union, 2004. CD

________. Emmaar. Wedge, 2014. CD

________. Imidiwan: Companions. Outside Music, 2009. CD

________. Tassili. Wedge, 2011. CD

________. “Tinariwen Documentary, Part 1 and Part (21 August 2007).

Toumast. Ishumar. Real World Records, 2007. CD

Al-Jazeera. “Orphans of the Sahara.Al-Jazeera. (23 January 2014).

Claudot-Hawad, Hélène. “A Nomadic Fight Against Immobility: The Tuareg in the Modern State.” Nomadic Societies in the Middle East and North Africa: Entering the 21st Century. Ed. Dawn Chatty. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2006. 654 – 679.

Fischer, Anja and Ines Kohl. Tuareg Society Within a Globalized World: Saharan Life in Transition. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2010.

Keenan, Jeremy. The Dying Sahara: U.S. Imperialism and Terror in Africa. London: Pluto Press, 2013.

_____________. The Lesser Gods of the Sahara: Social Change and Contested Terrain amongst the Tuareg of Algeria. London: Frank Cass, 2004.

Kohl, Ines. “Modern Nomads, Vagabonds, or Cosmopolitans? Reflections on Contemporary Tuareg Society.” Journal of Anthropological Research 66, no. 4 (2010): 449-462.

Lecocq, Baz. Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2010.

Morgan, Andy. “What do the Tuareg Want?” Al-Jazeera. (9 January 2014).

Seligman, Thomas K. and Kristyne Loughran. Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World. Los Angeles: University of California, 2006.

About Bonnie Bates (13 Articles)
Currently working towards a Masters in History and African Studies at Carleton University, my areas of interest include North African and Saharan history, gender, identity, culture, politics and language.

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