Les Filles de Illighadad

16/03/2018This Female-Led Saharan Avant Rock Group Is Reasserting Its Sound In A Male-Dominated Scene

We just can't get enough of these stories and most importantly this extraordinary music. Hailing from a secluded, hardly accessible village in central Niger, located at the edge of the Sahara, with little infrastructure, no electricity or running water, Les Filles de Illighadad released their very first studio album at the tail end of last year on Christopher Kirkley's Sahel Sounds imprint. Led by Fatou Seidi Ghali, the all-female "avant rock group bring their new genre of Tuareg guitar mixed with traditional rural folk [...] that is unlike anything ever before recorded [and transports] rural nomadic song into the 21st century".

Their sound is typical of rural Niger, a music known as "tende". "Tende takes its name from a drum, built from a goat skin stretched across a mortar and pestle. Like the environs, tende music is a testament to wealth in simplicity, with sparse compositions built from a few elements, vocals, handclaps, and percussion. Songs speak of the village, of love, and of praise for ancestors. It is a music form dominated by women. Both collective and communal, tende is tradition for all the young girls of the nomad camps, played during celebrations and to pass the time during the late nights of the rainy season."

What makes this story even more compelling, is the fact that the group's lead vocalist and performer Fatou Seidi Ghali, is one of the only Tuareg female guitarists in Niger. And this is where another interesting aspect needs to elaborated on: We've witnessed the increasing popularity of various genres of Tuareg music in the West, propagated by the rise to fame of international "desert blues" acts the likes of Tinariwen, Bombino, Mdou Moctar or the Algerian Imarhan. But what many do not realize, is that "guitar music is a more recent creation":

"In the 1970s young Tuareg men living in exile in Libya and Algeria discovered the guitar. Lacking any female vocalists to perform tende, they began to play the guitar to mimic this sound, replacing water drums with plastic jerrycans and substituting a guitar drone for the vocal call and response. The exiled eventually traveled home and brought the guitar music with them. In time, this new guitar sound came to eclipse the tende, especially in the urban centers. If tende is a music that has always been sung by woman, the Tuareg guitar was its gendered counterpart, and Tuareg guitar music is a male dominated scene."

Enter Fatou Seidi Ghali and her three-piece from Illighadad, who are now "reasserting the role of tende in Tuareg guitar. In lieu of the djembe or the drum kit, so popular in contemporary Tuareg rock bands, Les Filles de Illighadad incorporate the traditional drum and the pounding calabash, half buried in water". Their debut album "Eghass Malan", available via Bandcamp, was recorded while on tour in Europe after just a few concerts. But that in no way takes from the spontaneous and inspired feel of their sparse and unique groove, as "hypnotic guitar riffs, driving rhythms, and polyphonic resonant vocals combine to create an organic sound that is timeless and ancient, bridging ancient tradition and modern worlds".

AUTHOR: Lev Nordstrom