Emma Bider is a recent MA graduate in anthropology with a specialization in African studies at Carleton University. Her interests lie in the relationship between cultural identity and place, the cultural importance of music and the politics of integration.

Author: Emma Bider
Thinking about integration as imperfect translation: How Tuareg women are bringing their music to Europe

Before I began my research on Tuareg women’s music in France and Belgium I often thought of integration in one or two ways. Either it meant “cultural mosaic” potlucks at elementary schools so that students could show off their culture using food and dress, or it represented a disjuncture between the majority and minority, and therefore the need to “solve the problem” of immigrant isolation and ghettoization.

Integration is often mentioned in the news or op-eds with reference to “our values” and fears over whether or not new immigrants share them or need (or need not) to adapt to them. Values could mean anything—religious garb, language fluency, cheering for the same soccer team—it is a question of cultural touchstones, of shared history. In France and Belgium integration is central to several laws and policies regarding immigration (and I would hazard to guess this is the case in many other countries in Europe) that range from banning religious symbols for those working in administration, to laws regarding where the state assigns an immigrant’s residence. There is little thought about how immigrants and refugees are integrating their own cultural materials or artefacts into European contexts.  Music might not seem to be a top priority when it comes to integration but while working with Tuareg women and learning about their musical practices, their instruments and their ideas about movement and home, showed me that integration is not an easy transition from one culture into another. It is messy. As immigrants and refugees slowly adapt to a European context, they are deciding what can be translated to their new home and having to make hard choices about what must stay behind.

The Tuareg

The Tuareg or Kel Tamasheq are a historically nomadic people whose population now spans Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya and Mauritania. Though once pastoralists, herding cattle, horses or camels, the Tuareg have become increasingly sedentary due to a variety of factors, including French colonialism (1892-1962), climate change and frequent outbreaks of conflict in the region. Because of their colonial relationship, any Tuareg who immigrate tend to go to France, though there are Tuareg around the world, from Australia to Canada. I wanted to work with the Tuareg because I knew that music was an important part of their culture and history and I was curious to see what role music played in conflict mediation and integration.

The Tendé drum

The tendé is an instrument I stumbled upon while preparing for my fieldwork. The tendé is a kind of drum, usually made with a mortar as the base, with goat, horse or camel skin stretched over top. The skin is then drenched with water to get a clear, deep sound. It is considered by many to be the “first instrument of the Tuareg”, one that is the domain of women, or put another way, the only instrument women can authentically play as a true Tuareg. It is a social instrument, one that moves easily between formal and informal performance. To play proper tendé songs, one needs a big tendé for the rhythm and a small tendé for improvisation. There is a main singer and then a chorus of other voices. Many tendé songs have a call and response structure.

An example of a big and small tendé from the region of Timbuktu. Rope holds the dried animal skins on the wooden mortars. Source: Emma Bider

When I heard about the tendé I imagined it as an ideal integration tool into a new culture. Music has been shown to be a way for first generation immigrants to hold on to their culture while establishing new lives in host countries. It has also been a way for second generation immigrants to bridge the two cultures they identify with, as has been the case with Rai music in France and Turkish music in Germany. Music is very mobile: What is easier to bring with you than your own voice and the songs in your head? But this was a naïve assumption on my part. Because while music may be mobile, its cultural importance is often grounded in a particular place and context, which makes it harder to put in a suitcase.

The Desert

The tendé drum has an interesting relationship to the desert, long considered the traditional homeland of the Tuareg. Though many Tuareg have had to move to cities and towns due to conflict and the increasing difficulty of living as nomadic herders, the desert is still incredibly important to Tuareg identity. The desert was where the Tuareg were able to hold back French colonial armies bent on stopping their nomadic ways. The desert was where traditional camel races were held, where caravans were established, and where you can hear the beating of the tendé drum from over two kilometres away.

Tendé drumming is considered “the mother” of Tuareg music. People I spoke with described themselves as being “born into” knowing the sound of the tendé. Children learned to play the tendé rhythms on oil drums; one person told me it was the root of the more popular Taureg guitar riffs; another told me no other culture has an instrument like it. The tendé is made from the desert, sounds best in the desert and gathers people who are separated by the vast dunes of the Sahel. The majority of my informants insisted I would never hear authentic tendé drumming if I didn’t go to the desert. The two were inextricably linked in the minds of tendé musicians and their audience. In addition to being steeped in cultural meaning and history, the tendé is also an extremely practical object to have in the desert. The mortar base was used to tenderize meat and crush millet for meals and then it is transformed into an instrument in the evenings.

What do you lose when you take the tendé drum out of the desert? The Tuareg I met in France and Belgium were adamant they could adapt to any new situation. As my informant Moussa told me: “When we are in an open world, we can encounter all the world, we adapt, and us in our culture, we’ll adapt to everything…What I mean is we can easily adapt to everything, even to the music, except the tendé instrument is hard to make new…” What I witnessed during my fieldwork was a small community debating exactly how they might make the tendé suit a European space.

Tuareg Women in Europe

There were not many Tuareg women in Europe; and far fewer women who played the tendé. Those Tuareg who immigrated to France and Belgium were often men looking for employment or refugees who had left Mali due to the 2012 coup d’état and subsequent war that involved Tuareg separatists, the Malian government and Islamic extremists who had come to Mali from the Middle East. There is, however, no single story of Tuareg immigration. I met women who had married European men, women who spent a great deal of time in Europe visiting family despite technically residing still in Mali or Niger. I also met a touring band, composed of three women and one of their brothers on guitar. Another band in Belgium called Kel Assouf included a tendé drum on-stage.

Most of the women I met did not have jobs, or were musicians struggling to get gigs. Playing the tendé was hard in Europe—the Tuareg community was scattered across France making it difficult to gather enough people to even play informally. Furthermore, few women had brought tendé drums when they migrated—they were heavy and awkward to carry around or bring on the train. All the women who had once played the drum agreed that tendé music was important to keep alive in Europe. But the question was how?

Keeping Tendé Music Alive

This was a debate in which both men and women took part. One woman was unable to bring a tendé drum with her when she was resettled in France as a refugee. She instead has a djembé in her living room and played tendé rhythms on it for me, with her aunt singing along.

The band leader of Kel Assouf, Anana, told me that “what we do in Kel Assouf is try to integrate traditional music with more modern styles.” Kel Assouf does claim to have a tendé drum as part of their ensemble, though it looks nothing like the mortar and animal skin object I recognized. “The logistics [of a traditional tendé] are very difficult. In fact, it’s really only the sound of the tendé that’s important,” said Anana. While some see this as a genuine attempt to give tendé a place in Europe, others see it as a half-measure.

Those who disagree with Kel Assouf’s tendé drum preservation strategy worry that when you take away the traditional materials of the instrument, it loses its meaning entirely. One musician named Mahassa mentioned that she loved watching people in the audience when she played because it was as if they were being transported to the desert. “They’ll say after the concert ‘that was incredible. It was like we were in the desert’. They close their eyes and they’re gone. They’re imagining it.” For Mahassa, playing the tendé in its original form meant bringing and sharing a piece of the desert with European audiences.

And then there was another way the tendé was being understood and translated to Europe: through the lens of female empowerment. The band Les Filles d’Illighadad was noteworthy because one of the women played guitar—a man’s instrument—and was therefore defying Tuareg gender norms. Two other women played the tendé drums, but their music was always played in the second half of their concerts. This, as I was told by the group’s manager, “was a way to casually introduce fans and listeners to this ‘more difficult’ music”.


The strategies for making the tendé “work” in France and Belgium were wide-ranging. Musicians who knew each other often had a WhatsApp group and would discuss these things, while also looking out for possible gigs and sharing gossip from Bamako. For many, rather than being wholly integrated into European culture, the tendé has come to Europe in bits and pieces. Women listened to WhatsApp recordings of tendé drumming from Mali and Niger. I myself saw my very first tendé performance over a WhatsApp video chat, streamed from southern Algeria. You could say that what integration often means to immigrants is a re-interpretation of their own cultural objects and values, to see how they might fit in. More importantly perhaps, the process of “emplacement”—of finding a sense of belonging as a diasporic community in Europe—is bound up with desires to maintain a connection with home in addition to finding suitable ways of translating the materials of ‘home’ to a different geography.

Imperfect translation implies that things will be missing. One can argue that integration practices and policies in North America and Europe are sorely lacking because they don’t provide immigrants and refugees with enough support to effectively “become” European or Canadian or American. I believe that in re-framing integration as something that is contested and imperfect within new diasporic communities, we can think critically not about why Muslim women want to wear the hijab, or why Tuareg women want to play the tendé, but how they are doing it, in what ways are they translating these materials new places? I believe that the process of translation is something that all diasporas go through as they try to construct social ties between the familiar and the strange in their new homes. It is possible that the tendé will develop a new role in Europe for Tuareg women. It is also possible it will disappear, because of a lack of funds, lack of community, or lack of willingness on the part of politicians or policymakers to see the value of giving space and time to those who are negotiating how to translate their cultures to Europe. We must think critically about what the cost of such disappearances might be.