?The blues is at the root of all the music I grew up loving . . . At the root of the blues is Africa, and at the root of the African root of the blues is Mali.?
(Read Part I of this series here.)
It would be easy to hypothesize that the Saharan musicians learned blues from listening to American recordings, but there’s little evidence to support that, and ample evidence that the ancient music of the Saharan tribes sounded similar to sub-genres of American blues without being at all imitative. Yes, Tinariwen listened to Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Dire Straits, and others, but so did I?for years?soaking up the blues clues without ever actually encountering bona fide country blues until I went out of my way to seek it out.
There is much commonality between the musical aspects of both Saharan and hill country blues. One example is the combination of instruments?flute plus stringed instrument plus drum?which are seen in the early Mississippi fife and drum bands of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The assouf guitar style, like blues guitar, also proceeded naturally from acoustic to electric guitar, which emphasized certain elements in the music which had tended to lie dormant under acoustic strings but which became clearly manifest with amplification. Particularly noteworthy was the intensity engendered by the hammer runs and dissonant chords. There is a vocal call and response running through the blues traditions (made more manifest in gospel music) which is salient in the desert music as well (listen to an example here).
Another common feature of American blues and desert blues is their profound cultural influence within their own regions. It’s impossible to imagine 20th-century American pop music without blues. Blues was essentially its keystone. The influence of blues was enormous, even among people who never listened to true blues: it spawned or affected the development of jazz, ragtime, gospel, barrelhouse, honky-tonk, bluegrass, cabaret, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, soul, hip hop, and many other genres.
Similarly, it is hard to imagine North African popular music of the 20th century without the fertilizing influence of Saharan music. There is an ongoing circle of influence in the North African countries that connects the music of the Saharan Tuareg and Wodaabe tribes to the development of Gnawa, rai, chaabi, Andalusian music, African reggae, the music of radical Kabyle Berbers, Ahwach, and many of the other, numerous genres of each region, many native to specific villages.
Yes, many of these North African musical genres have also been heavily influenced by international genres, but so was early blues, whose tones were altered in response to the music of bagpipes and Hawaiian guitar and the simple beats and modal chants and ululations of traditional Native American music.
What uniquely parallel set of conditions created these two uniquely parallel musical forms? Of course many of the slaves who were forced to come to America were descended from these desert tribes. For those who believe in karma, it appears that it was simply the fate of these slaves to live out their traditional destinies in another country.
Morever, both in America and in the Sahara regions, the musicians were deeply shaken by cultural genocide, poverty, diaspora, political repression, and brutality.
As a child, Tinariwen’s founder, Ibrahim Ag Elabib, threw together homemade instruments, as had children in the Deep South. And he witnessed his father’s execution, just as many children in the American South witnessed the lynchings of their fathers. Like the blues musicians, the Tuareg and Wodaabe tribes lived under repressive governments and social mores.
Saharan musicians tended to form loose collectives instead of bands, much like the northern Mississippi blues musicians, who tended to centre musical alliances around juke joints. The religious similarities include an intense spirituality that is more animist than monotheistic and a preoccupation with trance states and the world of spirits.
The blues aesthetic is one that embraces strangeness, tragedy, alienation, despair, rejection, violence, and raw sexual desire. The Saharan musical aesthetic is remarkably similar, suggesting an image of the musician as a marginalized forerunner of social change.
There’s also the Jungian metaphorical similarity. Blues musicians had a traditional legend about meeting a dark man at a crossroads, a man who in exchange for your soul would teach you how to play guitar like a wizard. There is something profoundly meaningful in this notion of a crossroads?a place between two or more worlds, carnal and spiritual, white and black, northern and southern, government and grassroots, freedom and authority, Arab and Berber. It is of is of particularly deep significance to Saharan musical traditions, which have long developed in response to the mix of cultures that for years has been throwing sparks at the juncture between the Arab North and sub-Saharan South.
Back to my sound quest. Last year I reviewed a book called The No-Nonsense Guide to World Music. There was a passage in the book that described the music that was played in the square in the middle of Casablanca. This passage set me on a North African sound quest, which is now knee-deep into Saharan music. But even then I had the suspicion, nay, certainty, that political and aesthetic rejuvenation would enter the world by the portal of North Africa and that the implications of blues in the West for art and politics would be echoed and amplified by the desert blues in the Middle East.
The YouTube videos being traded around on Facebook just before the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia are a case in point.
(To be continued . . .)