Centres of Polyphony


As I have already mentioned, Sahara is traditionally considered as a part of North Africa (or a buffer zone between the North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa). My suggestion is to distinguish Sahara as a separate region. This suggestion is based on the unique polyphonic traditions of   Berber-Tuareg populations, unknown neither among North African Arab populations, nor among sub-Saharan African peoples.

The name Tuareg was given by the outsiders to the fearful militant tribes of Sahara desert. Berber is a generic and wider external name (possibly from Latin barbari (“those who speak a foreign language”). Term Imazighen (self-name, meaning “free men”) is increasingly used.
Berber-Tuareg populations are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of the North Africa, joined by Phoenician traders about 1200 B.C. Together they built a Carthage and for centuries were the fierce competitors of the Rome for the dominance over the Mediterranean basin. Berber warrior Hannibal came even through the Alps to defeat Rome, although the Rome eventually wan the competition and destroyed Carthage in 202 B.C. Drastic demographic changes for this region came much later, after the 688 A.D. with the first waves of Arabic invasions. Part of the Berber-Tuareg population was assimilated, but another part of the Berber-Tuareg population retreated deep into desert and mountain areas, where they fought for centuries to maintain their identity and traditional culture. Some populations of Berber-Tuaregs were not affected much by Muslim religion until the latter part of the 19th century (Wendt, 1998:533). And even today, although Berber-Tuaregs consider themselves Muslims, few unique “non-Moslem” features of their religion (such as matrilineal kinship and very high status of unveiled women, or the tradition of the veiled men) are well known in the anthropologic literature.

Today Tuaregs live at eight different locations on the territories between southern Algeria, southwestern Libya, few regions of Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and few neighboring countries. Although nomadic peoples often display close language connections on vast territories, the existing Berber-Tuareg dialects are mutually unintelligible. According to the most optimistic (and inclusive) estimates, there are about 500 000 Tuaregs in Africa, although according to other, much more conservative estimates, the “real Tuaregs” (camel-herding nomads) are only about ten to twelve thousand left in the Sahara desert. Large Berber (Imazighen) populations also live in Algeria and Morocco. They mostly live in mountain ranges of Atlas, Djurdjura and Aures mountains, and southern, desert parts of Algeria and Morocco. Ongoing fight of Berber populations for minority and women rights and for their language and culture is one of the important elements of North African political life (Goodman, 2002:274-275).

Most importantly for our topic, together with other elements of their culture, Berber-Tuaregs maintained the tradition of polyphonic singing. This tradition is particularly spectacular during the traditional celebrations, when the whole village is participating in creating the complex “thick” texture of polyphony. Most of the participants sing a drone, unique for the polyphonic traditions of the entire African continent. Ostinato formulas are also very usual among Tuareg polyphonic songs. Drone is sometimes sung by dancers (Wendt, 1998:543). Both men and women sing, although men are preferred singers (and women are traditionally instrument players – another unusual element of Tuareg culture). Interestingly, there is an important difference in the singing style of men and women as well. Male singing style is close to the North African singing style (high register tense voice with lots of melodic ornaments), and women singing style is much more relaxed (Wendt, 1998a:579-580). Generally, men follow the Muslim religion closer than women. Women are considered (and are very much revered) as the guardians of Tuareg traditional pre-Islamic culture (Wendt, 1998a:593).

Very interesting are the camel festivals (tende) where singing plays an important role. In northern regions singing in accompanied by the women’s choral pedal drone, and in the southern regions it is ostinato that mostly (but not always) replaces the pedal drone (Wendt, 1998a:585). According to Tuareg belief, strong rhythms attract spirits, so rhythmically vigorous music with the drone or ostinato is performed to cure the “possessed” or “emotionally ill” person. Solo lead singer is joined by the whole community (with clapping, shouting encouragements, or raspy grunts) at this very important for Tuareg society ceremony. This ceremony may repeat for several consecutive nights.
In Algerian Sahara flute playing by Tuaregs is often accompanied by the vocal sound, produced by the flute player (player is usually a herdsman). And again, like in Tuareg vocal music, the vocal part represents the pedal drone (Wendt, 1998a:591-592).

Examples of african polyphony

The Tuareg Wedding Song

Share it on