Since the late 1970s young “Tuareg” men from Niger and Mali, who were exiled to Algeria and Libya, took up the guitar and voiced their protest against the political and social situation through song.

The music became the cult music of the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. The new guitar music soon replaced the traditional music of the Tuareg and the at the time popular West African music. Even though the rebellion was not successful, the guitar music succeeded in the international market. Nowadays, modern Tuareg music bands are on their way to conquer the world music market.

This particular style of music has been given many names: Alguitar (Al-Guitara) music, Sahara Blues/Rock or Ishumar music.

It is an OWN MUSICAL GENRE influenced by English rock music (eg. Jimi Hendrix, Dire Straits, Santana and Bob Dylan), by Arabic oud music and by the traditional Imzad music of the Imuhar.

Ishumar sing about nature, love, their country, their culture and their social situation. They sing exclusively in their native language, Tamasheq. The lyrics are often full of nostalgia and contain metaphors, hints and imagery. Specific knowledge is required to decode the lyrics.  

Only young men, called Ishumar, perform tnew guitar music. They come from Nord Mali and Nord Niger, sometimes from South Algeria.



The classic music is performed by women, who are accompanied on an Imzad violin or Tende drums. The new music is accompanied on modern electric guitars and drums. Nowadays, women are only background singers.

Numerous Imushar nomads fled from the great Sahelian drought in the 1970s (high point 1973/74) and 1980s in Mali and Niger to Libya and Algeria (Klute 2013: 66-67). In that time young people listened to traditional Tuareg music, English rock / blues music, West African music and Arabic oud music.
That music inspired them to make their own music.

 (Neo) TENDE (Iswat/Tesawit) MUSIC
The classical music like Tende (Iswat/Tesawit) music is traditionally performed by women. At the end of the 1980s Lalla rose to fame in the migrant milieu in South Algeria. She performed tTende (Iswat/Tesawit) music in a new way. Lalla came from the Adrar (North Mali) but was exiled to South Algeria. She was the leading voice and a mixed choir accompanied her for the chorus. The music was widely distributed via audio cassettes all over the Sahara (Klute 2013: 67).

Taherdant MUSIC
Enadan (Craftsmen) musicians got paid to perform songs on the Taherdant (3-string violin). Men eg. could order a song of praise about his beloved.

The new music genre was first performed at zahuten parties. The zahuten parties became a kind of new subculture and were often broken up by the Algerian police (Klute 2013: 67)

Alguitar (al-Guitara) STYLE
The first songs were exclusively performed by migrants from Nord Mali in South Algeria in 1978. They initially called it Al-Guitara style.  

Ibrahim ag Alkhabib is considered to be the founder of the al-Guitara Music style (Klute 2013: 71). He first played on a guitar made out of a canister.

 Then he joined up with Intayyadan ag Eblel who got them electric guitars. They founded the group Tinariwen / Kel Tinariwen. Little by little, further members joined the group. They performed at events like weddings, baptisms or dance nights in Libya. Young men spread audio-recordings of their music all over the Sahara which caused the music to grow in popularity. More and more young men started to perform songs in the same style.

The young exiles sang songs about their land, culture and social situation in between two countries. The lyrics became more and more political due to poignant experiences in the Islamic legion of Al-Qaddafi eg. in  Chad 1987 (Klute 2013: 81). They appealed to all Tuareg to offer resistance and to strive for a common nation but not in a direct way.

The lyrics contain many metaphors und hints. Listeners need special knowledge to decode the lyrics (Klute 2013:120).

TANGALT – Coded art of speaking
Messages are often coded due to the Tuareg’s art of speaking (Fischer 2012; Klute 2013). One kind of coded speaking is called Tangalt.
Texts or speeches about war, violence or death is “tangalized” (Klute 2013: 58; Fischer 2012) Especially the lyrics about the rebellion are “tangalized”  so much that even Tuareg have problems understanding the meaning (Klute 2013: 59). The Tuareg nation is often talked about in kinship terms (Klute 2013:127).
The remaining kin in North Mali are referred to as sisters (Schetma) (Klute 2013:134). The exiles are called friends (Imidiwen) (Klute 2013: 137).

In the beginning the music served as a kind of political propaganda for a Tuareg rebellion with the dream of a common nation.

Around 1990 many young men came back to North Mali from exile in Libya and Algeria.  A violent rebellion by a few young exiles began around the same time, but soon rifts along traditional alliances and enmities followed (Klute 2013:110). Soon lyrics arose, which tried to end the fratricidal war by using kinship terms to appeal for a common nation (Klute 2013:137). But the calls for unity failed in 1991 (Klute 2013:111). In 1994 military combats started within the groups (Klute 2013:112). The young exiles became deeply frustrated (Klute 2013:115).

Distribution via AUDIO CASSETTES
Two groups arose: Those who understand and those who don’t.
The group of long-term exiles wanted to send messages via lyrics to the people who had stayed in the desert (Klute 2013:200). The circulation of messages happened via audio cassettes. Audiocassettes are highly democratic, cheap and easy to handle and erase in comparison to LPs or CDs. But the spreading is not controllable. The audio cassettes were given out for free. The people in the desert frowned upon selling them and considered it to be immoral (Klute 2013:212). The audio cassettes were distributed under-the-counter before and during the rebellion (Klute 2013:212). The people in the North Malian desert liked the music though even they do not understand the lyrics initially (Klute 2013:203)

Firstly, the new music became popular in the urban areas and was even performed at weddings. Many young men began to perform music in that genre. The poets who once appealed for rebellions are now artists, who make their living with music and therefore try to sell it on the international music market (Klute 2013:213). Now, they charge fees and admission at concerts. Soon, the often unclear authorships of the lyrics became more important than the common struggle (Klute 2013:213). US and European music groups became excited for Tuareg music and promoted Tuareg bands by organizing international music tours.

The Saharan musicians no longer dream of a common nation, but of success on the international world music market (Klute 2013:213).


Further information:

Klute Georg 2013: Tuareg-Aufstand in der Wüste. Rüdiger Köppe Verlag. Köln.

Belalimat, Nadia 2010: The Ishumar Guitar: Emergence, Circulation and Evolution from Diasporic Performances to the World Scene. In Fischer, Anja/Kohl Ines: Tuareg Society within a Globalized World. Tauris. London. S. 155-170.