Daily Archives: April 13, 2015

Tuareg, Touareg

If you’re wondering why I’m writing about a Volkswagen midsize luxury SUV, come a little closer. Closer… closer… [cuffs you on the side of the head]

The wilderness-despoiler mass-marketed by VW, and often heard pronounced like “tour-egg” or “tore-egg,” has taken its name from a Saharan nomadic people. It’s like calling a vehicle Apache or Aztec or Basque or, I dunno, Inuvialuit. Touareg because exotic nomadic desert-dwelling blue-veiled people from near Timbuktu!

Well, I’m not writing about SUVs and I’m not going to dwell on the VW swiponym (swiped name) anymore. My motivation for tasting Touareg – more typically spelled Tuareg in English, and properly said /ˈtwɑ rɛg/ – is an email I got in response to yesterday’s tasting on oud. I had mentioned how Arabic music is very good studying and writing music for me (I didn’t mention, because it was off-topic, that Indian ragas are generally even better for that). Jean Rossner emailed me that she had lately discovered another genre that is similarly good for her: Tuareg desert blues. She mentioned three groups who play it: Tinariwen, Tamikrest, and Etran Finatawa.

This is a kind of music with what I immediately recognize as a modern West African style, with a variety of electric and acoustic instruments. If you want to sort out all the different influences and sources, go right ahead. Anyway, here is some of it to start playing while you read the rest of this tasting – and long thereafter. I’ve found a playlist of 15 videos, and an hour-long concert by Tinariwen; there’s plenty more out there too.

Does it sound like blues to you? It doesn’t make use of the blues hexatonic scale, but the songs may have some bluesiness in the lyrics – I actually don’t know; I don’t speak the language. But there’s a pun involved, to be sure: the Tuareg, especially the men, are – as I mentioned above – known for wearing blue veils on their faces, which can even colour their skin.

Their language, now. The Tuaregs are a Berber people, and their language falls into the Berber family, which is part of the Afro-Asiatic phylum, the same broad family that includes Hausa, Somali, Arabic, and Hebrew. (English is part of the Indo-European phylum; so are French, Albanian, Hindi, Russian… There are four language phyla in Africa, or five if you count the invasive Indo-European.) It is a language more spoken than written, but it is written. It is written multiple ways. There is a Latin-based orthography – actually more than one. There is also Arabic-based orthography. And there is the Tifinagh orthography, their own writing system, long reserved for special purposes (magical formulae, writing on the palm to maintain silence) but sometimes now in broader use.

What is Tifinagh? It is an alphabet that has no particular resemblance in form to any other alphabet you’ll find. It is what one might call very geometric – which is kind of silly, because everything using lines on paper is geometric. But in this case it’s using a lot of simple (easily described) geometric forms: squares, circles, crosses, dots. It couldn’t look less like Arabic script if it tried. Have a look at it on Omniglot: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/tifinagh.htm

Where does it come from? It’s not certain, but in any case, it came from there a long time ago. It’s probably descended from Phoenician letter forms – Tifinagh may come from Phoenicia, even if it looks like an Irish place name.

Oh, about that final gh: that’s meant to represent a voiced velar fricative, which in the Latin-based orthography for Tuareg is typically written ɣ. So it’s different from the g on the end of Tuareg. But it’s the same as the gh on Imuhagh, which is what the Tuareg actually call themselves.

So where is this word Tuareg from? We’ve had it borrowed into English since the early 1800s. It’s from a Berber word, possibly even a Tuareg word a bit modified, and seems to refer to one of the areas they live in, a part of Libya. At least it’s not an insulting exonym like Eskimo!

It is also, I think, catchy and attractive. It starts with the crisp, sturdy T and ends with the firm snub-nosed g (polysyllabic words that end in eg are exotic in English, but not ostentatiously so); it has that /ware/ or /uare/ in the middle, which may recall ululation, or the African board game wari, and maybe has a taste of wadi or water; there is a little flavour of the middle of Sahara even. It may play to fantasies of the desert, which pulls a little tug within to ask you who you are. Or not. But I think, anyway, it sounds more sandy and attractive to English audiences than Imuhagh. I can’t guarantee that, of course…