[This feature was originally published in the eleventh issue of She Shreds Magazine, November 2016 and has been edited for timely accuracy. Subscribe here and receive your copy of She Shreds’ 12th issue with your subscription.]
Fatou Seidi Ghali is a pioneer of guitar in West Africa. She lives in Illighadad, a small scrubland village in the desert country of Central Niger, located outside of the Tahoua region—and she is one of only two known Tuareg women guitarists in Niger.
The Tuareg society, a nomadic people living throughout the Sahara, are known for their tende—a style of music and the mortar drum played—and their traditional folk guitar playing. Tuareg guitar has gained notoriety locally in the Sahara and internationally due in part to Tinariwen, a band from Mali that won a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album for their 2011 release, Tassili.
Around six years ago, Ghali’s brother brought home a guitar and she taught herself how to play. Today, she plays an old blue acoustic guitar, which is bruised and warped due to the harsh Sahara climate. When she plays publicly, she is accompanied by her cousin Alamnou Akrouni.On February 2016, the two women released the six-song self-titled LP, Les Filles de IIllighadad (which translates to “The Girls of Illighadad”), on Sahel Sounds.
Sahel Sounds is the project of Christopher Kirkley, music archivist based out of Portland, OR. Beginning as a blog in 2009 and later evolving into a record label, Kirkley has traveled through the Sahel region of Africa—spanning between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian Savanna to the south—to meet musicians, create field recordings, and release music online as well as vinyl. Kirkley found out about Ghali by seeing a photograph on the Internet of her playing at an Illighadad festival. He was intrigued, having never seen a Tuareg woman play guitar. He brought the photograph with him when he returned to Niger and showed it to Ahmoudou Madassane, a Tuareg musician he had been working with who turned out to be Ghali’s cousin. Kirkley and Ghali eventually met and arranged to record Les Filles de IIllighadad.
“We recorded at her home, and she played with a bunch of friends around,” says Kirkley. “When she plays guitar, all of her cousins and brothers and sisters and the kids in the village are around clapping along and singing. It’s well known that she plays guitar, and they’re really proud of her in the village.”
While women have historically been musicians in Tuareg society—despite their limited social mobility outside of the home—guitars have primarily been played by men. “For a woman to play a guitar, or even sing songs with a guitar, is really exciting for a lot of people,” says Kirkley. Ghali and Akrouni also perform tende, which refers to the drum, the style of playing, the rhythm, and the events in which it takes place, such as curing ceremonies, evening entertainment, camel festivals, dance traditions, and other special occasions. The tende drum is created out of a mortar and pestles with goat skin stretched over top. The two pestles are leaned against the side of the mortar, parallel to the ground, and a woman sits on each side of the pestles like chairs, stretching the goat skin over the mortar to create a drum. It is a communal form of music in which participants sing, recite poetry, dance, and clap along to the drum. According to Kirkley, Les Filles de Illighadad are currently working on songs in which they bridge the world of tende and guitar playing. “They are taking this new direction of music, of adapting old tende songs into a guitar repertoire, which I think is really revolutionary for Tuareg music in general,” says Kirkley. “I think they are on the cusp of creating something new and really exciting.”
In an interview with Kirkley from earlier this year, Ghali stated, “I want to have a great future with the guitar, to be successful, and I want to have girlfriends who play guitar so we can play together and be successful together.” This November, Les Filles de Illighadad will tour across Europe for a month. They will be joined by a third woman who plays tende, as well as Madassane who will act as their manager and translator. The three women have not spent much time outside of their village—some have been to Niamey, the capital of Niger, but otherwise they have not traveled far.
She Shreds recently spoke with Ghali through email. Her answers were given in her native language, Tamasheq, which was then translated to French by Madassane and then to English by Kirkley. Some of the questions were difficult for Ghali to understand, due to cultural differences, and some of the answers may be lost in translation, but nevertheless, her innovation and passion shines through.
What was your early life like? Did your parents play music?
My youth is very different from the world of which I am, with the music. My parents wanted to give me away in marriage very young, because I started to love the guitar.
How did you get introduced to Tuareg guitar?
It was my older brother that came with the guitar of his friends to the house and when he left, I took the guitar and searched how to play. Always when he played, I watched his fingers. Afterwards, I really started to love the guitar and people always tell me that I’m very beautiful with the guitar.
What other instruments do you play?
Before we played the tende with my sisters and my friends, so I play the tende, and I sing.
Did you have ambitions to release a record before you were found by Sahel Sounds? How did you feel about releasing your music through the label? What was that process like?
Before I didn’t even know the importance [of recording] and it’s become a big advantage to us. Christopher opened our understanding of the importance of recording. Here, everyone records with their telephone, and no one receives any income.
Is music how you both earn money? Do you have any other jobs?
Yes, we earn with the music now. Here the girls do not work, even the majority of girls that are in the city.
What is the music industry like in Niger?
Almost nothing for us here.
You call yourselves The Girls of Illighadad. How does your community influence your music?
People love our music, and this title also, because we are the only ones.
In a video of you performing, there’s a man sitting next to you as you play. Who is he?
My big brother. I work with him, it is he who manages us. As we are women, sometimes we can’t do anything if it’s not playing.
What subjects are you drawn to write songs about?
It’s poetry when you make the tende. Other songs are of love, or tradition and religion.
What are your favorite lyrics that you’ve written?
The message that we make for our community is [the subject of] love.