Most Americans and African Americans, if asked, will try to explain that the blues derived from cotton fields along the Mississippi River in Mississippi and along the Brazos River in Texas. Outside the United States, particularly in Africa, an entirely different answer would be forthcoming. A prevailing belief in Western Africa is that the blues existed, and was sung, long before it surfaced in the cottonfields of the American South in the 19th century. They say the blues was born along a river alright, but it was the Niger River, where Berber white Africa to the north meets black Africa to the south, at the city of Timbuktu. It’s also where berber music mixed with African music to produce the original blues, they say. The story has it that when African slaves were transported to the new world, they called their music “the blues.”
“Ask an African, and he’ll look at you as if you’re stupid. The blues came from Timbuktu, where the sands of the Sahara met the banks of the mighty Niger River, and reached a compromise. Here, Arab and Tuareg caravans came from the desert bearing slabs of precious salt and bartered with African traders offering pots of gold (and often slaves) in return. The culture that came out of this meeting place produced a rhythmic and mournful music that you can still hear in the songs of the Tuareg, Fulani, and Songhay communities here,” writes Christian Science Monitor correspondent Scott Baldauf.
Many musicologists argue that these desert blues bear an uncanny resemblance to the American blues. “Until recently, most people seemed to take it for granted that the essence of the blues came solely from tribal Africa. A growing body of evidence, however, suggests the true origins of blues music might be from the parts of Africa touched by Islam. You only have to hear for yourself the traditional music of the Tuareg people of North Africa to appreciate its uncanny correlation with some of the earliest recorded rural blues,” explains Paul Merry in How Blues Evolved Volume One.
Early bluesmen and women would have probably been astounded to hear that they might have been singing songs inspired by the original slave traders of Africa and by Islam, of all possible inspirations. When you think of it, why would the original African slaves brought to North America not be familiar with such music, especially if they had been captured in the vicinity of Timbuktu?
“Coincidentally, these Berber nomads are also famously known as the Blue Men of the Desert, due to their indigo blue robes and wrap-around headwear. Traditionally living between the Arabs of northern Africa and the Negroid peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, Tuareg warriors had traditionally hunted down and traded in black slaves since Roman times. For six hundred years, until the end of the nineteenth century, the Tuareg were the undisputed masters of North Africa’s slave trade,” continues Merry.
In the 1500s, the Tuareg warriors started providing captured Africans to the Portuguese, who needed laborers for their new sugar plantations in Brazil, thus beginning the Atlantic slave trade business. Over 100 years later (in 1619), the British brought the first African slaves to Jamestown Virginia to work in the tobacco plantations there. Some of these slaves brought their musical instruments with them while others fashioned their own using local materials. Ethnomusicology professor, Gerhard Kubik says American plantation owners allowed slaves from Africa’s Muslim regions to play stringed instruments on their properties while banning drums and instruments from the Congo and other non-Muslim areas. Drums were dangerous, suggests Kubik, because they could be used to spread subversive messages across long distances.
In his book The Portrait of the Blues author Paul Tryuko writes: “I am on the porch of Jack Owens of Minolta Mississippi listening to the now frail singer…singing his early haunting lines. Most of the elements of Owens’ playing are familiar, but in this context, his phrasing and tonality seem unAmerican, eerily reminiscent of Rohaida Mohamad, a Moroccan flute player I’d heard in a bawdy café in Tangiers.”
The debate over when and where the blues originated will no doubt continue, but some American musicians have played concerts with the Blue Men of the Desert. Tinariwen is a Grammy Award-winning group of Tuareg musicians from the Sahara which has played at various locations around the world, including a concert with American guitarist Carlos Santana. Older American musicians, such as Robert Plant and Bob Dylan, are fans. “While the Tinariwen style is possibly a distant relative of blues music, via Western African music, members of Tinariwen claim they never heard actual American blues music until they began to travel internationally in 2001,” states Wikipedia.
Tinariwen uses modern musical instruments, such as electric guitars, but their music is still hundreds of years old. It’s enough to add a new wrinkle to a very old debate.