Almost as big as the USA, the vast Sahara spans Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Despite being the hottest desert on earth, it is home to millions of people whose diverse cultures and traditions create a vivid cultural landscape. This Rough Guide features the region’s best-loved artists as well as exploring beyond the arid sandscapes to reveal hidden Saharan sounds.
The Sahara is the world’s hottest desert where scorched sand dunes weave ribbon patterns from east to west and barbed mile-high mountain ranges jut skywards. The region equals out as almost the same size as the United States and spans a humungous 3,600,000 square miles across North Africa, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Its photogenic undulating sandscapes have seduced travellers, artists and storytellers for centuries: Rudyard Kipling captured the mystery of its natural beauty remarking that journeying through it up the River Nile is ‘like running the gauntlet before eternity’.
Since the ancient empires of Nubia, the Great Desert has been inhabited consistently: Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Berbers, Ottoman Turks and European colonialists are among the tribes that have lived in its realms. Among the Sahara’s present-day inhabitants are nomad Fulani, Tubu and Tuareg peoples who recall stories of ancient battles forcing their ancestors to seek refuge deep in the desert where they carved out a way of life, constantly moving onwards, respecting the moods and winds of the desert herself. Religion is largely Islamic in the region with cultural remnants of Christian, Pagan and Jewish traditions audible in local dialects and behaviours.
Religious and traditional factions across the Sahara jostle against each other making for a vivid political landscape, not without conflict. January 2012 saw the beginnings of a Tuareg uprising in northern Mali. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) were fighting for autonomous powers and had taken control of the Azawad region by April of the same year. A peace deal was signed in June 2013 but the situation remains tense. Western Sahara has been listed with the United Nations as a case of incomplete decolonization since the 1960s. The Saharawi national liberation movement, the Polisario Front, formally proclaimed the Saharawi Arab Democratic (SADR) in 1976 and continue to contest Morocco’s power in the region. Gaddafi’s ousting from the seat of power in Libya dominated the international news in 2011. In the same year, Egypt’s Tahrir square was flooded with protesters speaking out in mass against then-president Hosini Mubarak. Of course political passions inform musical expressions. Etran Finawata from Niger strive to promote unity - their band members are from both the Wodaabe and Tuareg ethnicities which have historically been rivals. Mariem Hassan is a Saharawi singer whose music pays tribute to old poems written by Ali Bachir and Lamin Allal, artists from her oppressed nation who were forced to live in exile. The title of her 2012 album El Aaiún Egdat (El Aaiún on Fire) casts a striking comment on the largest city in the Western Sahara, which is under Moroccan occupation.
Other artists bend expectations, re-working familiar pop genres into new, surprising formations. Anansy Cissé sucks up all the brilliant things about well-trodden West African ‘Desert Blues’ trope and spits them out with a new, agitated attitude. Salamat explore Nubian elements of Egyptian music headed up by percussionist Mahmoud Fadl and Djama Djigui speaks a new language with his tamani (talking drum).
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