Rebirth of Tuareg women-only musical tradition in Algeria

In ancient belief, men playing a single-stringed violin are cursed, with the instrument making a comeback amongst the Tuareg women in Algeria

Rebirth of Tuareg women-only musical tradition in Algeria

World Bulletin / News Desk

A single-stringed violin played only by Tuareg women is making a comeback in Algeria as the last of its players come to the rescue of a tradition on the verge of extinction. Women have long played the imzad in the matriarchal Tuareg communities of the Haggar and Tassili mountains of southern Algeria and neighboring desert regions of Niger and Mali.

By the early 2000s, only two women in Algeria still played the instrument, crafted from half a gourd shell covered in animal skin, a wooden handle and a string of horse hair.

Enticed by modern commercial beats, young Tuareg women had lost interest in the instrument, which requires “a certain understanding of time,” German ethnologist Edda Brandes says.

Today, thanks to the “Save the Imzad” association, dozens of young women are again learning how to use an arched bow to stroke the imzad’s string in three schools in the vast Haggar region.

An ancient belief suggests men risk a curse if they play the instrument.

Khoulene Alamine, who is in her 80s, teaches her art to younger generations in the desert town of Tamanrasset. “I’m happy to be able to pass on this art I’ve been playing since I was 10,” she says. “I hope all girls pick it up. ... The imzad should be played by young and beautiful girls.”

The instrument’s discreet, refined lament has traditionally accompanied poetry and popular songs glorifying the feats of past heroes.

On a carpet on the sand of the Tagmart plateau, around 30 kilometers outside Tamanrasset, Alamine sits, holding the imzad over her crossed legs.

She plays, her right hand on the bow, her gaze lifted skyward. Sitting beside her in the red sunset poet Husseini Nekhat, resplendent in a blue robe, recites verses.

“The imzad’s sound gives me incredible energy,” he says.

In Tuareg tradition, the instrument accompanied courtship meetings called “ahal” that could last long into the night.

Algiers-born engineer Farida Sellal witnessed these customs when she worked as a post office and telecommunications official in Tamanrasset in the 1970s. Her passion for the desert drew her back to the area three decades later.

“There were only two women left still playing the imzad,” she says, “and no more ahal.”

Together Sellal and a community leader formed the Save the Imzad association in 2003. Ten years later, they managed to have the “practices and knowledge linked to the imzad” added to a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.

Founding member Seddik Khettali traveled from Tamanrasset to plead the instrument’s case at a U.N. gathering in Azerbaijan. Subsequently the Home of the Imzad center opened in Tamanrasset, aiming to become a beacon for Tuareg culture.

It hosts a recording studio, a dance studio, a stage for performances and a workshop for making the instrument.

Inside, imzad-maker Cheynoune Zeineb sits cross-legged on a carpet surrounded by several female apprentices. In her fingers, she holds a string of horse hair whose far end is lodged between her toes.

It can take several days to make the instrument. A sound box is made from a dried-out half calabash shell. A gazelle or goat’s skin is stretched over it and pierced with two sound holes, then decorated with Tuareg motifs. Its handle is made of acacia or oleander wood.

“Making an imzad,” Zeineb says, “requires observation.”

Patience too.

Last Mod: 30 Ocak 2016, 12:40
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