World 101: Desert Blues

In this edition of World 101, we explore a movement known by several names: desert blues, desert rock or Saharan blues. Whatever name is used, the sound is recognizable. We're talking about the entrancing, sometimes melancholy, and often downright trippy grooves created when musicians from the Saharan desert region filter traditional folk music through blues and psychedelic rock. The many names bestowed upon this fusion are appropriate, since desert blues was created by members of traditionally nomadic cultures like the Wodaabe and the Touareg (or as they call themselves, Kel Tamasheq) people, who historically have been persecuted by the nations surrounding the Sahara and are often forced to live in exile from their homelands.

Desert blues is an integral part of that historic struggle: Many of the scene's most brilliant stars honed their craft in revolutionary training camps or learned electric guitar in refugee tent cities. The music they create often speaks to the realities of their lives; lyrics are sometimes virulently politicized (though they are more often mournful). Chanting choruses evoke the communal spirit found within a given struggle, while women's voices keen and ululate above the mix. Small armies of guitars echo and ring as if stretching toward an ever-elusive horizon. Often steeped in ceremonial traditions and governed by rolling drums, the songs move with a slow, sweltering grace. And all of it pulses with a rock 'n' roll heartbeat.

The result is a powerful experience that audiences both within and outside Africa quickly gravitated toward, when the first desert blues bands started releasing records and touring internationally in the late 1980s and early '90s. Groups like Tinariwen, Tartit and Etran Finatawa (who just released a gorgeous new collection), trace and retrace the path and passage of the blues and its children--rock, soul, even pop and hip-hop--back and forth across Africa, Europe and the Americas, each band or artist putting a particular spin on the journey.

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