Discover Desert Blues: Our Little Guide to the 7 Top Artists from the Sahel

Desert blues, guitarists walking along a dune
Photo credit Mohamed Yassine

What does the African desert sound like? For us it’s desert blues, a genre that evokes the Sahara through an electric guitar and voices echoed through the centuries.

The Sahel region formed by Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad, is rich in musical production. A lot of great artists come from here, merging traditional sounds and rhythms with blues and rock.

Consider this article as a little guide to discover our favorite top artists from Sahel.  

1. Fatoumata Diawara, the pop princess from Mali

Mixing blues and traditional sounds and voice like wassoulou singing, this Ivorian-Malian artist is well known over the world.

An emblem of desert blues, she is capable of experimenting with a wide range of vocals, instruments and genres, yet respecting her roots. Her music is a combination of electric guitar and African instruments like kora and kamel ngoni. Style is also eclectic: blues, funk, syncopated, she mingles ancient and modern in an excellent fusion.

Fatoumata Diawara is also a recognized voice of African womanhood and puts messages of universal peace and respect of human rights in her music. Her songs cover themes like respect, love, women rights, humanity and children’s rights.

She has been a part of several important collaborations. For example a record with notorious artists like soul star Bobby Womack and jazz composer Herbie Hancock. Fatoumata Diawara also played at Glastonbury and other major festivals and toured with the Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca.

She assembled a West African group featuring famous colleagues like Amadou and Mariam, Oumou Sangaré and Toumani Diabaté to record a song calling for peace in Mali, her homeland.

2. Bombino, from desert blues meditation and restless top albums

Bombino’s music equates Sahara. Listening to his songs brings us immediately to that area. His second album Nomad is particularly evocative, mixing classic blues with psychedelic rock. However other albums not to be missed are Sahel (2023) and Agadez (2010).

He is also a sort of refugee. Born in a Tuareg encampment in Niger, he was living during a particularly unstable political moment. So, his family fled to Algeria, then came back to Nigeria and he fled again to Burkina Faso.

This unrest is reflected in his music, which can be meditative and restless at the same time. His work’s marks are his captivating voice and how he uses guitar, as well as his energy. A few great pieces: “Jaguar (A great desert I saw),” “Amidinine,” and “Midiwan (my friends),” Bombino also got a Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album, being the first artist from Niger to receive it.

3. Les filles de Illighadad, a power female desert blues trio

This all-women trio comes from Niger. Originally from the village of Illighadad, the three gave a new form to tende instruments. They are traditional instruments – drums, built from a goat skin stretched across a mortar and pestle – usually associated with female and female voices.

However, les filles reverse its scope and accompany it with guitar. They play it simultaneously with guitar to restore its importance. Fatou Seidi Ghali is one of the few Tuareg women playing guitar in Niger, a country where guitar is traditionally associated with, and played by men.

4. Amadou and Mariam, the amazing musical couple

This is a traditional duo, active since the 80’s. Formed by Amadou Bagayoko, guitarist and singer and Mariam Doumbia, singer. They developed their music through the years, becoming a symbol of not only Sahel but African music in general.

In 2003 they met Manu Chao, who produced their album Dimanche à Bamako (2004).

They play and record in Europe and United States, allowing music from all over the world to enter their work. If you want to experience the world’s sound, in their pieces you can find Indian sounds, Cuban rhythm, French folk, American blues and funk.

5. Songhoy blues, for energetic and optimist vibrations

This band of Malian citizens – despite being kicked out of their country – is full of energy and hope, just like their Optimisme album declares.

Current affairs are a great topic for these guys: their other albums are called Music in Exile (debut album from 2015) and Resistance (2017). Labels, on the contrary, are not important. Songhoy declared once that with music, they simply do whatever makes them comfortable. Being it reggae, world music, desert blues or anything else.

Rhythm is combined with political commitment: “we want to make you dance but also reflect, because music can change the world,” seems to be their message. As with labels, they don’t believe in borders. So, their music doesn’t have any. Expect them to switch from one genre to another, but also from English to French to Songhoy.

6. Tamikrest, discover Tuareg identity and desert blues sounds

A talented rock group coming from the middle of the desert. “Junction” or “connection” is the meaning of their name and it is a good synthesis of their ways.

Each of the five musicians of the band comes from a different region of the world. The music is full of intensity and is a tribute to Tuareg identity with rock style: lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, djembé and drums. Desert blues is often present in their work.

Some pieces are meditative while others turn psychedelic. Starting from the desert, they staged international events and collected fans from all over the world. What they want is to make nomadic culture accessible to a wider audience.

7. Ali Farka Touré, the greatest guitarist from the Sahel

Sometimes described as the “African John Lee Hooker”, this the only artist of this list who is not living. He remains, however, a core part of African, Sahel and Malian music.

After he died in 2006, the world soon acclaimed and recognized is blues style. He was capable of mixing, thanks to his deep musical knowledge, different styles and repertoire.

A talented guitarist, he played traditional instruments like calabash and bongos. A good way to approach his music, besides listening to his whole discography and intimate pieces featuring singer Oumou Sangaré, is giving a chance to the tribute album Ali. It emerges from a collaboration between Ali’s son Vieux and eclectic band Khruangbin.

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