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Berber music

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Title: Berber music  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Music of Tunisia, Berber music, Music of Niger, Music of Morocco, Berber
Collection: Algerian Music, Berber Culture, Berber Music, Burkinabé Music, Malian Music, Moroccan Music, Nigerien Music, North African Music
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Berber music

Berber music refers to the musical traditions of the Berbers, an ethnic group native to North Africa west of the Nile Valley and parts of West Africa.[1]

Berber culture dates back more than 5,000 years; the Berber people lived in North Africa long before the arrival of some Arab tribes. The Berber language descends from the Afro-Asiatic group, most likely from the Semitic or Chadic branches, and contains many closely related dialects and accents. Berber music varies widely across North West Africa and some of the best known variations can be found in Moroccan music; Kabyle, Chawi and Gasba music from Algeria; and Tuareg from Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali.

Ancient Berber music is stylistically diverse with styles including pentatonic music, such instruments as the oboe and the bagpipes, and African rhythms along with singing.[2] These ancient musical traditions have been kept alive by small bands of musicians travelling from village to village, entertaining at weddings and other social events with their songs, tales and poetry.

Most Berber music is of the village and urban folk musical variety. Berber music and culture is influenced by the Berber people’s long-standing struggle to achieve basic language rights and identity recognition in modern North African societies, aside from aesthetics and style.[3]


  • Musical/Vocal Styles 1
  • Instrumentation 2
  • Algeria 3
  • Morocco 4
  • Non Algerian Tuaregs 5
  • Berber dance 6
  • Notes 7
  • See also 8
  • External links 9

Musical/Vocal Styles

Berber music is well known for its use of folk oral traditions, as well as particular scales and rhythmic patterns, which include pentatonic music and African rhythms.[4] All these elements are combined together to form one of the main sources of entertainment in Berber social ceremonies like marriages, as well as verses, tales and songs.

Berber vocal styles in Morocco consist of two main types. The first, called Ahwash, is exclusively village music, probably unchanged for centuries or longer. Ahwash texts emphasize the submission of the individual to the community. Typically, it consists of two large choruses engaging in call-and-response vocals, accompanied by instrumentalists and dancers. Since this music requires anywhere from 20 to 150 participants, it is not easily portable and so rarely heard in the cities.

The second, called Raiss, is performed by smaller groups of professional musicians who blend dance, comedy, and sung poetry. Raiss songs tend to honor orthodox Islam, but with notable dashes of syncretist belief. In these songs, traditions like sacrifices and evil eyes are justified through Islam. Instruments typically include the rebab, a bowed one-stringed string instrument, the lotar lute, hand drums, and bell. One notable feature of rwais melodies is the way they leap up and down in large intervals.[5]

The region of Kabylie in Algeria has a very large Berber-speaking population. Vocalists are usually accompanied by a rhythm section, consisting of "tbel", a type of tambourine, and bendir, a frame drum, and a melody section, consisting of a "ghayta" (bagpipe) and "ajuag" (flute).

The Berber music of the Tuareg region uses rhythms and vocal styles similar to the music of other Berber, Iberian, and Arab music, while West African call-and-response-style singing is also common. In contrast to many of the region's peoples, among the Tuareg music is mostly the domain of women, especially playing the imzhad, a string instrument like a violin. Tuareg weddings feature unique styles of music, such as women's vocal trilling and special dances (ilkan) of slaves marking the occasion.


The Berber people are spread out over a large part of Africa, but are mostly concentrated in the northwestern region of Africa. They use a vast array of both melodic and percussive instruments. The following instruments are part of their secular and religious dance and song:

The taghanimt is an end-blown reed flute. Used mostly to accompany songs rather than dance, the taghanimt has a rich, breathy texture.

The mizwid is a type of bagpipe; the term literally means "bag" or "food pouch".

The zukrah of Tunisia has a large role in societal performances along with the ghaytah of Morocco. In both countries, these instruments are combined with several percussive instruments to create large ensembles which may perform at public festivals or similar occasions.

The nafir is a long natural horn, a type of valveless trumpet. This instrument is used mostly as a signaling instrument to send out messages to large groups, although it also has some performance value.

The Moroccan ginbri is a fretless plucked string instrument with a skin stretched over its body on the playing side: the skin has the same acoustic function as the membrane on a banjo. Most ensembles have at least one ginbri, although some have more than one.

The rabab is a long-necked bowed instrument with a large body. Like the ginbri, it is constructed with a skin on the string side. This instrument has only one string, usually of horse hair, and is commonly played alongside the ginbri.

In percussion, the tabl (Berber: e'ṯbel) is a cylindrical double-sided drum. Although it has a similar usage and spelling to the tabla of India, no direct connection has been found between the two. The qas'ah is a large shallow kettledrum found mostly in Tunisia. Similar to the qas'ah is the Naqqarah, two ceramic kettledrums played simultaneously by both hands.

In Moroccan Berber music, a series of snare frame-drums of bandirs may be played simultaneously. These provide the main percussive rhythm for Berber music as the above-mentioned drums are more artistic than bandirs.

The qaraqib is a large metal castanet-like musical instrument. Normally one is held in each hand. These may be used to keep a rhythm or to play their own pattern.[6]


The region of Kabylie in Algeria has a very large Berber population. Traditional Kabyle music consists of vocalists accompanied by a rhythm section, consisting of t'bel (tambourine) and bendir (frame drum), and a melody section, consisting of a ghaita (bagpipe) and ajouag (flute).

Kabyle music has been famous in France since the 1930s, when it was played at cafés. As it evolved, Western string instruments and Arab musical conventions, like large backing orchestras, were added. After the independence of Algeria and Kabyle culture was oppressed, many musicians began to adopt politicized lyrics. The three most popular musicians of this era were Ferhat Mehenni, Lounis Ait Menguellet and Idir, whose "A Vava Inouva" (1973) brought international attention for Kabyle music and laid the groundwork for the breakthrough of raï.

By the time raï, a style of Algerian popular music, became popular in France and elsewhere in Europe, Kabyle artists were also moving towards popular music conventions. Hassen Zermani's all-electric Takfarinas and Abdelli's work with Peter Gabriel's Real World helped bring Kabyle music to new audiences, while the murder of Matoub Lounes inspired many Kabyles to rally around their popular musicians.

Modern singers include Djur Djura and many chawi singers and groups as: Houria Aichi, Les Berberes, Amirouch, Massinissa, Amadiaz, Numidas, Mihoub, Massilia, Merkunda, Thiguyer, Salim Souhali (Thaziri), Dihya, Messaoud Nedjahi and others.

Kabylie is a region east of the capital Algiers, inhabited mostly by speakers of Kabyle, first régional language, and one of the indigenous languages of North Africa. Kabyle folk music has achieved some mainstream success outside of its homeland, both in the rest of Algeria and abroad.

In the 1930s, Kabyles moved in large numbers to Paris, where they established cafes where musicians like Cheikh Nourredineadded modern, Western instruments like the banjo, guitar and violin to Kabyle folk melodies. Slimane Azem was a Kabyle immigrant who was inspired by Nourredine and 19th century poet Si Mohand Ou Mohand to address homesickness, poverty and passion in his songs, and he soon (like many Kabyle musicians) became associated with the Algerian independence movement.

By the 1950s, Arab classical music, especially Egyptian superstars like Umm Kulthum, had become popular and left a lasting influence on Kabyle music, specifically in lush orchestration. Cherif Kheddam soon arose with the advent of a Kabyle branch of Radio Algiers after independence in 1962, when France called a cease fire on March 19 and enacted the voting upon an agreement during a referendum in June. Included here were the Evian Accords which, for three years with all Algerians gave certain legal protections to colons equally. After the three years however, all Europeans would have to become Algerian citizens or risk being classified as aliens, which would then make them lose rights. Some of the rights discussed in the Accords were the right to participate in public affairs, the right to a full range of cultural and civic rights and the right to own property. Female singers also became popular during this period, especially Cherifa, Djamilla and Hanifa.

Algerian independence did not lead to increased freedom for Kabyle musicians, and these Berbers soon included often covert lyrics criticizing the Ben Bella government, which had little repurcussion due to the Evian Accords. Many of these musicians were inspired by othersinger-songwriters, including Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Víctor Jara and Silvio Rodríguez. Abranis ( pop rock amazigh music concept) Idir, a Kabyle geology student, sang Kabylie's first major hit, which sold an unprecedented amount in Algeria and abroad, "A Vava Inouva" (1973). Ferhat, known for his politically uncompromising lyrics, and Aït Menguellet, known for his poetic and inspired lyrics, also became popular during the 1970s.

During the 1980s, Kabyle music evolved into sentimental, pop-ballads performed by groups like Takfarinas. Some of the inspiration for this evolution was the popularity of pop-rai internationally.

Modern singers include Djur Djura and Houria Aichi.


Famous Moroccan Berber musicians include Ammouri Mbarek, a singer and songwriter active since the 1960s and considered the "John Lennon" of the Berber world, and Najat Aatabou, a singer whose debut cassette, "J'en ai Marre", sold an unprecedented half-million copies in Morocco. The Master Musicians of Jajouka tour internationally and have collaborated with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and William S. Burroughs.

In 2009 the first R'n'B songs in a Berberian language were released by Moroccan singer Ahmed Soultan in his second album Code.

Many musicians have created fusion styles from Berber and European music, including Hindi Zahra, Hassan Hakmoun, Khalid Izri, Hassan Idbasaid, Thidrin, Med Ziani, Imtlaa and Houssaine Kili.

Non Algerian Tuaregs

Main articles: Music of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso

The Tuareg who live in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso have produced internationally renowned bands in Tartit and Tinariwen. Their traditional music uses rhythms and vocal styles similar to the music of other Berbers and Arab music, while West African call-and-response-style singing is also common. In contrast to many of the region's peoples, among the Tuareg, music is mostly the domain of women, especially the imzhad, a string instrument like a violin.

Berber dance

Some parts of North Africa, near Eastern, still have some Berber dance traditions. Over the past four years, however, Morocco has seen a lot of change regarding this style of dance, as well as others, as ethnic danse has become less popular and more uncommon. While active, however, the style could be seen performed at the Marrakesh Folk Festival.

The invention of the satellite receiver, and its subsequent addition to almost every household in Morocco, has brought about the biggest changes in this style of dance. The power of certain religious authorities have also been increased, as broadcasts can more easily reach a much larger audience. Out of the original 300 channels, 30 of them were religious. A prime example of the effects of this exerted power is that women are no longer permitted to dance in public as Islam considers it dishonorable for her and her family, thus imposing fundamentalist Muslim beliefs on the Berber peoples.[7]

Guedra is the form of Berber Dance with the Tuareg. Guedra is what they call the ritualistic dance only when performed by a woman on her knees. If she stands up at any point during the performance, it's called T'bal. The reason for the different names, even though dances are done very similar is not difficult to speculate, though no formal reason is addressed. In this culture, Guedra is not just a dance, but a ritual that everybody can participate in. It is mostly done by women, but sometimes men and children also participate. Guedra is stated to be performed to create good energy, peace and spiritual, not carnal, love.


  1. ^ Muhammad Aurang Zeb Mughal (2012) 'Tunisia'. Steven Danver (ed.), Native Peoples of the World: An Encyclopedia of Groups, Cultures, and Contemporary Issues, Vol. 3. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, pp. 688-689.
  2. ^ "The Berbers". Retrieved 2013-09-15. 
  3. ^ [3]
  4. ^ "Berber Music of Morocco and the Middle Atlas". Alwan For The Arts. 2008-10-25. Retrieved 2013-09-15. 
  5. ^ "Shibboleth Authentication Request". Retrieved 2013-09-15. 
  6. ^ [4]
  7. ^ Bauwens, Daan (2009-08-13). "Berber Dance is Over". Retrieved 2009-11-09. 

See also

External links

  • Berber Music
  • Public Radio's Afropop Worldwide on Berber Music
  • Master Musicians of Joujouka
  • - Watch a great video of a Najat Aatabou concert
  • background info on berber
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