Lalla Badi and Tinariwen :  Modern Tuareg music at the source

For any tuareg music fan, the concert given by legendary singer Lalla Badi and Tinariwen, was an exquisite pleasure, heightened by the magnificent decor of the Bouffes du Nord theatre (Paris);  a perfect venue for the Tuaregs who highly prize sumptuousness on special occasions and this concert was certainly one of those. Lalla Badi, relatively unknown in the west, was invited by the cult Tuareg band as they closed the tour of their new album Emmaar (the burn). Unknown she may be to many western fans of tuareg music, but Lalla Badi is a leading figure in Tuareg culture. She has received many prizes in Algeria, and performed in various international festivals of world music since 1973. She is the godmother of the musical style that revolutionized Saharan culture over 40 years ago and whose colours Tinariwen have been flying throughout the world. The performance at Bouffes du Nord was one more expression of a common artistic destiny which began forty years ago.

At the ripe age of 75, Lalla Badi is the incarnation of Tuareg music’s current artistic vitality and a major actress in its aesthetic and musical renewal. Just like the founding members of Tinariwen, she is from the border region of Timyawin (Algeria). Her influence has shaped not only her own her own but also following generations, through the musical evenings she organised in Tamanrasset, in the Tahaggart-shumera neighbourhood where the Malian diaspora started gathering in the 60s. Her mastering of her art, the powerful gracefulness of her chant, and her out of the ordinary social role made her the muse of the Tuaregs in the 70s and 80s, during the formative years of Tinariwen. She never stopped singing in Tahaggart-shumera where the local well has been named after her.

When Lalla settled in Tahaggart, still a village in Tamanrasset suburbs in the 70s, there were only two houses and much desolation in the surrounding tents. Fleeing repression or a string of droughts, the diaspora from Northern Mali gradually settled in the vicinity. As she opened her house to stricken families, Lalla took up the habit of organising tende evenings where good behaviour was of paramount importance in a neighbourhood looked down on by the local population.

Tende and iswat are the two typically female repertoires in Tuareg singing art. While Lalla Badi embodies the excellence of the tende, those two genres are the main musical heritage of Tinariwen who adapted, transcended and sublimated it for guitars. The tende is for festivities, for various celebrations such as marriages or baptisms, but also just for the pleasure of partying and rejoicing in gathering (takoubelt) so prized by nomads during the rainy season, when pastures and water are plentiful for livestock and when people settle for a while. In rural areas, it is performed on the esplanade of the celebration: a group of women gather around the tende which is an ordinary mortar over which a goat skin is stretched and regularly sprayed with water. The soloist initiates a cycle of chants to the fast beat of the percussion of the membranophone and the syncopated hand clapping of the other women. In an accomplished tende, camels mounted by men form a carousel around the women who keep playing and the soloist who keeps singing while the rhythm of the tende blends with the beat of the animals’ feet

The iswat is a more intimate genre, played at night while the tende is played during the day; it is also more melancholic and designed for youngsters, be it the artists or the audience. All great tende singers learned their art in their youth at the iswat. It was originally sung a capella, but it tends to be accompanied by a percussion (tende or can) and/or guitar. More importantly, the iswat is characterized by a female lead singer accompanied by a male chorus (issigdalen) holding a bass line. This critical overtone is characteristic in the guitars of Tinariwen and all young artists who followed in their steps and adopted their style. Finally, it is the melancholic and melodious power of this repertoire and its terse aesthetics that dominates. It is the repertoire where the nostalgic fibre of Tuareg sung poetry is best voiced.

She is the one who imported the Tuareg Malian musical style into Southern Algeria, and this style came to dominate all others. Lalla’s tende soon gained the support of all Tuareg communities, in Tamanrasset and elsewhere, thanks to cassette taped recordings in Tahaggart. The young Tinariwen were there of course, carrying on through her their musical and cultural education, and deciphering the possibilities of a new sound with guitars and fine tuning their message, while their whole generation was being uprooted. With these cassettes, Lalla also participated in the growing collective awareness of the social and political crisis of the time, radically confirmed in the first Tinariwen songs as early as the end of the 70s, and even more so in the following decade. In her own way, she sung the life and adventures of the ishumar who travelled to all corners of the Sahara, with Tamanrasset at its geographical centre. The youngsters could not get their hands on her cassettes quick enough and they travelled thousands of kilometres to hear her sing. Ten years later, the same collective passion would focus on and be incarnated by Tinariwen whose songs accompanied the 90s rebellion in Northern Mali which they predicted in their self-produced cassettes, duplicated, transported and listened to by their whole generation.

As the band reached its Saharan acme at the beginning of the 90s, the syncretism of the tende-guitar materialised itself: Lalla and the Tinariwen used to perform together and the cassettes bear witness to the “modernization” of the tende or of the “traditional” trend of the Tinariwen guitars. Lalla, for her part, has long since enrolled a guitarist in her band Issekta, while her “children” were travelling the world with their guitars and the living memory of her voice.

Nadia Belalimat is an anthropologist. She is Ingénieur d’études au CIRED (International Research Center on Environment and Development) and PhD candidate at EHESS Paris: Tinariwen’s poetry, music and history. A cultural anthropology and social history of Tuareg modernity.

Nadia Belalimat