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Les Filles de Illighadad strum out a unique Tuareg sound

By Alison Hird

Les Filles de Illighadad are a female Tuareg duo from a tiny remote village in Niger... with a big career ahead. Unknown two years ago, their second album is due out in the Autumn.

Fatou Seidi Ghali and Alamnou Akrouni are Les Filles de Illighadad (the girls from Illighadad), named after their tiny hometown in a remote part of Niger near the border with Mali.

They sing and play a traditional Tuareg drum called the tende, which is also the name of a repertoire of traditional Tuareg folk songs.

But it’s Ghali’s deftness on both acoustic and electric guitar that is turning heads at home and abroad.

In late 2014, a photograph of her playing at a wedding in Illighadad went viral on social media, and was spotted by Christopher Kirkley of record label Sahel Sounds.

“There was a photo circulating among a lot of my Tuareg friends from Niger of Fatou playing electric guitar in a wedding," Kirkley told RFI on the line from Portland, Oregon. "I saw this photo and it kept being shared and there was a lot of excitement but there wasn’t a lot of information about it.”

He contacted the Tuareg rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane, who turned out to be Ghali’s cousin, and travelled to Illighadad where he recorded Ghali playing.

Kirkley went on to produce the duo’s first eponymous six-track album in February 2016 and the band have since toured in Europe along with Madassane and another cousin Mariama Assouan.

Fatou Ghali performing on RFI's Musiques du Monde programme. RFI/Laurence Aloir

Strumming in a man's world

“It’s pretty unusual to have women guitarists in the Tuareg community,” Kirkley explains. “Tuareg guitar music, popularized by Tinariwen and Bambino, is a very male-dominated scene and that’s the first thing when I saw the photo of Fatou that jumped out at me.”

Coming from the back end of beyond also made her something of a novelty.

“She’s not from one of urban centres like Niamey or Agadez where there’s a lot of opportunity and guitars are lying all over the place,” Kirkley adds. “She’s very much far out in the country. It’s difficult to get to and there’s not a lot there, it’s really just a well and a few buildings.”

Big brother’s chords

Ghali got into guitar through her elder brother, around eight years ago.

“I started off learning an instrument called the takamba, then one day my older brother brought an old guitar to the village and left it there," she told RFI. "I started to teach myself like that."

The 25-year old uses her haunting vocals to forge her own style of minimal desert blues. But what really marks her apart from other Tuareg musicians is the way she blends traditional tende folklore with western guitar.

“She’s taken these songs that are confined to this realm of village folk songs and adapted them to the guitar," says Kirkley.

"A large part of her repertoire is tende music, which is a female music, and then with her friends and cousins she’s created this group where they’re taking tende and fusing it with guitar. It’s fascinating, completely new and it’s also something organic, developed independently and that they decided sounded good.”

An inspiration for other Tuareg women

Ghali’s life has changed radically over the last two years since she began playing professionally, and getting paid for it.

“I used to take the cattle to graze, fetch water, things like that,” she said.

Now her horizons are much broader.

“I’m not married. Music comes first in my life now,” she says. “The only problem is, any future husband will have to accept my music.”

For the moment she's one of very few female Tuareg guitarists, but hopes that may change.

“She told me she wished there were other women who were playing guitar," says Kirkley. "So I think she can be an icon for other women to know that they can pick up a guitar and learn to play. And there’s a lot of people that want to listen.”

What’s sure is that her notoriety has already put this poor, remote part of Niger on the map.

“People are seeing all the tour videos now that are coming out on the internet and sharing them and I think that for the Tuareg community back in Niger they’re really excited that she’s bringing attention to their village,” says Kirkley. “Prior to this group you couldn’t find Illigharad on a map or on the internet and now when you type it in google there’s Fatou and her village.”

A source of satisfaction for Kirkley's record label which aims to give artists from the Sahel region an opportunity to share their music.

“The label isn’t a conventional label in that sense, it’s more of a collaborative project," Kirkley says, "and whenever we can help musicians to reach a wider audience, it makes me happy.”

Sahel Sounds is currently mixing Les Filles d’Illighadad’s second album, for release this autumn.

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