Sounds From The Desert – The Music Of The Touareg

Touareg Man in traditional dress

The music track that I have inserted gives a very good idea of what traditional Touareg music sounds like. The music of  the Touareg people has been recognized internationally as a genre of its own during the last decade.  Bands like Tinariwen are now playing on stages in Europe. I am focusing in this post only on the “technical side” of the music. Touareg music is music shaped by the desert. When you listen you can feel the discipline in it that is needed to live a life in the desert, but also the vastness and the freedom of the space, that forms the mind of those living in it.

The music of the Touareg is deeply symbolic for their fight to be recognized also politically as their own people with their own governance. The words of their songs and their poems represent their struggle for a free and independant life and the preservation of their culture.

The Tuareg (also spelled Twareg or Touareg; endonym Imuhagh) are a Berber people with a traditionally nomadic pastoralist lifestyle. They are the principal inhabitants of the Saharan interior of North Africa.

Touareg or Berber marriages in Nara lasted for up to four days. I could  hear the chorus of the women accompagnied by a drum called tende singing throughout the night without interruption. The singing would not stop for several days and nights. In the nights it was more intense. It was so beautiful that I did not want to sleep. I just listened. May be this track can convey a little bit the atmosphere to you.

Tartit Touareg Mokubar

Traditional Tuareg music has two major components.  A monochord violin called anzad is played often during night parties and marriages. A small tambour covered with goatskin called tende, is used during camel and horse races, and other festivities.

Traditional songs called Asak and Tisiway (poems) are sung by women and men during feasts and social occasions. Another popular Tuareg musical genre is takamba, characteristic for its Afro percussions.

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Les Brochettes de Fatoumata Coulibaly – Fatime’s Kebabs

Madame Fatoumata Coulibaly, ex-Animatrice du Projet LAG, responsible for all activities relating to the women of Nara and the women in the villges. The only woman ever who worked for the project in Nara amongst seven men. A power woman.

It is my opinion, that there are moments in life, so perfect and well rounded off, that if you were offered a great sum of money later to trade in the happiness of these moments, you would refuse. Rather you would be willing to pay a great sum of money to buy that happiness and careless living back.

Fatoumata Coulibaly became one of my closest friends in Nara. Fatoumata or Fatime, as she is called held the position of “The Animatrice of the Project LAG” responsible for all project activities, that concerned the women in Nara and in the villages. Her job description was approxinmately 10 pages long ( I exagerate of course in case there are some labour layers amongst you).

Her tasks included educating women about proper childcare, hygene and nutrition, identifiying and developing income generating activities for the women, starting a contraceptive programme, teaching the women how to make soap, color fabric, make oil  etc. etc. The list goes on and on.

The ” Kebab Sit In” under Acacia Trees

When I arrived in Nara, the team of the project LAG was  made up of seven men and Fatime.

I was the second woman to join the team. And for seven years, until the end of the project there were only the two us of representing the female side of the human race. Imagine the bond we developed over time.

Fatime showed me how to drive the motor bike in deep sand. She rode the same bike as all ” the boys” and I never forget that moment, when I saw her for the first time lifting up her beautiful boubou, the traditional Malian dress (a wide tunica worn over a wrapped skirt) and swing her leg over the XT cross bike and ride off into the Sahel.  Another one bites the dust. That was me in that case.  But apart from being one of the strongest women I have ever met, she had another talent.

Her brochettes (the french expression for kebab) were phenomenal. Unforgettable and I still dream of them today. Fatime bought the beef fillet on the market in the early morning hours, when it was fresh and marinated it for 24 hours in “a special mixture” of hers. And there was only one  place where these brochettes had to be grilled and eaten. In the Sahelian bush at the ” Kebab Sit In”.

Fatime and Ccideron

Usually late in the afteroon I drove out into the bush for two or three kilometes, Fatime sat next to me and Ccideron was ordained to ride on the back of the car, to prevent the big white plastic bucket filled with Fatimes legendary kebabs from falling over. And he did it in style. We always went to the same place.


Me, doing what I always do!

Just put that camera down for a second!. Will you please!

We are talking to you!

But they were really good models!

Not only did Fatime give me hundreds of lessons about the mind and the way Malian women think, but I received many free geography lessons. These lessons were priceless.

with my aunt

Only very good friends and close family were allowed to join us, like my aunt, when she was visiting Mali. But no VIP’s

Night already! Who wants to go home !

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In Africa, When An Old Man Dies, It’s A Library Burning

I have written this post a while ago for my other blog. But its true place is here. Amadou Hampâté Bâ was one of the great and unforgettable Malians, who dedicated his life and work to a topic that is close to my heart – the oral tradition in Africa and the importance of the wisdom of the elders in the society. I will save my thoughts on this for the next post and let him talk for himself here.

In Africa, when an old man dies, it’s a library burning – spoken by Amadou Hampâté Bâ 1960 at UNESCO


“I graduated from the great university of the Spoken Word taught in the shade of baobab trees.”


“The people of Black race, as they are not peoples with a tradition of written literature, have developed the art of speech in a most special manner. While it is not written, their literature is not less beautiful. How many poems, epics, historic and chilvalrous narratives, didatic tales, myths and legends of egregious literary style have so been transmitted through centuries, carried by the prodigious memory of the men with an oral tradition’s, passionately in love with beautiful language and almost all poets.”

Amadou Hampâté Bâ 1985


” If you know that you do not know, then you will know”


All the proverbs are from Amadou Hampâté Bâ and the pictures are from Dr.Juergen Schlichting, my uncle and mentor, a street photographer and writer who was born in 1936. His extraordinary work covers the 1950’s to the 1980’s. The photos in this post were taken by him during a trip through East Africa in 1959. His images complement perfectly the quotes of Amadou Hampâté Bâ. The life of this great African writer fascinates me over and over again. For the ones who would like to read more about him I have compiled a small summary below.

Amadou Hampâté Bâ was born to an aristocratic Fula family in Bandiagara, the largest city in Dogon territory and the capital of the precolonial Masina Empire (Mali). After his father’s death, he was adopted by his mother’s second husband, Tidjani Amadou Ali Thiam of the Toucouleur ethnic group. He first attended the Qur’anic school run by Tierno Bokar a dignitary of the Tijaniyyah brotherhood, then transferred to a French school at Bandiagara, then to one at Djenne. In 1915, he ran away from school and rejoined his mother at Kati, where he resumed his studies. In 1921, he turned down entry into the école normale in Goree. As a punishment, the governor appointed him to Quagadougou with the role he later described as that of “an essentially precarious and revocable temporary writer”. From 1922 to 1932, he filled several posts in the colonial administration in Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso and from 1932 to 1942 in Bamako. In 1933, he took a six month leave to visit Tierno Bokar, his spiritual leader.
In 1942, he was appointed to the Institut Francais d”Afrique Noire (IFAN, French Institute of Black Africa) in Dakar thanks to the benevolence of Theodore Monod, its director. At IFAN, he made ethnological surveys and collected traditions. For 15 years he devoted himself to research, which would later lead to the publication of his work L’Empire peul de Macina (The Fula Empire of Macina). In 1951, he obtained a UNESCO grant, allowing him to travel to Paris and meet with intellectuals from Africanist circles.
With Mali’s independence in 1960, Bâ founded the Institute of Human Sciences in Bamako, and represented his country at the UNESCO general conferences. In 1962, he was elected to UNESCO’s executive council, and in 1966 he helped establish a unified system for the transcription of African languages.His term in the executive council ended in 1970, and he devoted the remaining years of his life to research and writing. In 1971, he moved to the Marcory suburb of Abidjan, and worked on classifying the archives of West African oral tradition that he had accumulated throughout his lifetime, as well as writing his memoirs (Amkoullel l’enfant peul and Oui mon commandant!, both published posthumously).Wikipedia

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A Place Where The Thoughts Are Shaped

The Meeting Place in Nara

” La Place de Reunion ” – The Meeting Place is the place where the thoughts are shaped. It is the place where decisions are made that concern the community as well as individuals. There are community halls but the men prefer to gather and have their discussions at the meeting place .

Every aspect of Mali’s society is structured. These structures detemine the way people interact and treat each other.

Thought is structured. One does not simply say what one thinks. Before a thought is spoken out in public it is turned around, looked at from every angle and the impact it would have on the listeners is evaluated from all sides. Not everybody can say everything. Some things have to be left for the right person to say.

Every village has a central meeting place build from indigenous tree trunks. The ones in the picture are characteristic of the Nara region.

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Nara au Sahel

Nara Main Street On A Week Day

The city Nara is situated at a distance of approximately 380 km North from the capital of Mali Bamako. Nara could be reached within a days travel, if lucky, which meant if there were no incidents like broken axles and several flat tires. In a worst case scenario it meant an overnight stay in the bush.

Nara is situated in a region called ” The Sahel “.

For centuries, the Sahel boasted some of Africa’s most influential civilizations. A narrow band of semi-arid land south of the Sahara, the Sahel attracted both Arab people in search for gold from the Sudan as well as Europeans looking for slaves from West Africa. The two influences merged with native cultures and traditions, creating a culturally complex and fascinating area. The Sahel is widely French-speaking and Islamic. The name Sahel comes from the Arabic language and means “shore”. Villages like Tombouctou, Djenne and Koumbi Saleh are famous today by historians and Trans Africa travelers.

Today the region is one of the poorest and environmentally most damaged in the world. The advance of desertification in large areas and the transformation from Sahel regions into “Sahara like” environments has seen the arrival and departure of many development projects and programmes.

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A Slow And Long Ride

The donkey cart was the only means of transport for many in the 1990’s. And although Nara is electrified and there are more cars today it probably still is for many. It took a slow and long ride, like for these two young men, to travel from the villages to Nara and back. They are sitting on top of a pile of fresh green leaves that have been collected around their village.

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