The Tuaregs are known as the Blue Men of the Sahara because of the indigo veils the men, but not the women, wear.
They start wearing their striking veils at the age of 25 to protect them from the harsh Sahara environment. The number of these stateless nomads is estimated to be anything from one to two million, spread across the North African countries of Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria and Burkina Faso.
They call themselves Imohag, translated as “free men”, but it’s a name that feels more like a yearning than an actual state of affairs.
They’ve waged a number of political struggles against domination, starting with the first rebellion against French colonialism in 1916 and continuing post-independence with numerous battles against Niger and Mali, with these countries posing the main threats to the Tuaregs’ traditional, nomadic way of life.
But they are also the Blues Men of the Sahara. One of the first bands to fuse rock music with indigenous Tuareg styles was the influential Tinariwen. Formed in 1979, this group of rebel fighters traded their AK47s for electric guitars to start what has become known as desert blues, a genre that has grown dramatically over the years.
Guitarist Anana Ag Harouna first encountered Tinariwen as a young Nigerian musician in the early 1990s, when he trained as a guerrilla exiled in Libya during the Tuareg uprising. Now based in Belgium, Harouna has just released a third album of blistering blues rock with his band, Kel Assouf. The band has been stripped down to a trio with Harouna on vocals and guitar, Tunisian Sofyann Ben Youssef on organ, Moog bass and backing vocals, and Belgian Olivier Penu playing drums.
‘War without violence’
Assouf means “nostalgia” or “the pain that is not physical”. While it aptly describes the band’s poetry of loss and that blues is not only the genre they play, it also reflects the trio’s state of mind.
But Kel Assouf’s music isn’t a sad, self-pitying sulk. Harouna, who grew up with the music of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath, deploys rock music as “a weapon of war without violence. It is a claim for justice and it is also the soul of humanity. It brings together human beings from different cultures and different languages and from different countries,” Harouna told his record company Glitterbeat’s website.
Like the Tuaregs, Kel Assouf’s music isn’t contained or constrained by borders. Their new album, Black Tenere, which is named after the desert, blasts across genres. It merges rock, blues, psychedelia, indigenous Arabic music, rhythms of the desert and modern electronic dance styles into gritty, hypnotic hybrids.
Lyrically, Black Tenere deals with themes such as immigration, injustice, colonialism, displacement and homesickness. “I feel very much the sense of injustice,” Harouna told online magazine Rhythm Passport. “I want to fight against this neocolonialism that comes with the big companies supported by their states. As it happened during the colony, we have very few people and states that exploit a mass of people again and again. It is an unequal fight.”
And it is a complex, painful fight – as the album’s strong opener, Fransa, points out:
The war during the French colonisation was won
by the swords, shields and spears of our ancestors.
How do you want potential allies to provide you with modern cannons and missiles?
Do you see your sisters every day climbing the border mountains,
clandestinely, exhausted, on their knees with bruised feet.
Throughout the album, Harouna tries to make sense of the Tuareg’s ongoing struggles, from the days of colonisation to today with “the geopolitics that unfolds in the desert for its natural resources”, as he describes it.
But Kel Assouf doesn’t just preach powerful politics. Like other desert blues rockers, they are doing music a favour by salvaging the bloated genre of rock, restoring it to its original muscular roots.