Imzad, the Music of the Sahel

In Niger, preserving the cultural practice of imzad strengthens women’s roles as messengers of peace

Mariama Aboubacar prepares to play the imzad in front of about 900 people at an event. / Erica Frendach, USAID

When night falls in Agadez, the city in central Niger known as “the gateway to the Sahara” desert, one might hear melodic sounds resonating from the imzad. This single-stringed bowed instrument is a centerpiece of the Tuareg culture, and has been part of life in Algeria, Mali and Niger for centuries.

For the Tuareg, an imzad is more than an instrument — it is an expression of identity and calls for the respect of ashak, a code of conduct and shared values. As a traditional Tuareg saying goes, “You can have nothing, but with Imzad, you have honor, courage and bravery.”

Left: Tamlait Tababekou plays the imzad at an event. Right: The imzad is a single-stringed instrument and curved bow made out of a gourd or wood and covered by animal skin. / Erica Frendach, USAID

Helping to strengthen this way of life and traditional values to protect this cultural identity is especially important now as USAID works with its partners to combat the violent extremism that is overtaking some parts of North Africa.

Local musician Tamlait Tababekou is one of a handful of women in Niger who plays this ancient instrument, which in 2013, was included in the UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In a society where men usually occupy the public space, female imzad musicians are an exception. Only women play the imzad and these musicians assume powerful roles in the community.

“When an imzad player says something, many people respect what she has to say,” Tababekou said.

Tababekou, 65, realized that this cultural practice might end if she did not teach the skill — and the values of respect and honor associated with the music — to the next generation.

Young women with their imzads and their trainer, Tamlait Tababekou (lower right), at a workshop in Agadez. / IOM

In 2016, USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives began supporting Tababekou to organize teaching workshops where she could pass on her knowledge to 15 young girls in Agadez. Another imzad master, Almadinaht Ibrahim, 49, conducts a parallel workshop with 15 girls in Gougaram, a small town farther north in the Sahara desert.

Imzad trainers Almadinaht Ibrahim (left) and Tamlait Tababekou. Tababekou says: “Imzad is not only a musical instrument, it’s a whole culture. When I play the imzad, it gives more power to the people who listen. Imzad music keeps people from doing bad things; it calls for a man to be brave, to be honest.” / Erica Frendach, USAID

Women here play a key role in educating youth and recognizing potentially dangerous behavioral changes. The imzad players have an added advantage — they have an influential public role in society and are seen as change agents with the authority to make a real difference in their communities. Through this program in Niger, USAID aims to strengthen communities so they are better able to resist and respond to the threat of violent extremism.

“We believe that local culture and identity are key factors in making a community more resilient to extremist ideology,” said Marilena Crosato, a staffer with the International Organization for Migration, USAID’s partner in the program. “In a conservative society such as Niger, cultural activities give women access to a public space to make relevant messages heard in a way which is perceived as culturally appropriate.”

Left: A boy enjoys playing his drum during an event with the imzad players. / Erica Frendach Right: Young women attend an imzad training in Agadez. / IOM

Learning the imzad has provided the young women with a platform for expression and identification, and allowed them to understand the role that everyone should play in the region’s stability.

“Imzad is an important means of persuasion that can be used to get people who engage in illicit activities to come to their senses,” said Ibrahim, who has played the imzad her entire life.

In each workshop, women ages 14–30 learn how to craft the instrument from local materials — a gourd, tanned leather, horsehair and wood. They then decorate and learn how to play it.

Young women learn how to craft the imzad from local materials — a gourd, tanned leather, horsehair and wood. / IOM

Imzad training has connected young women from very different backgrounds and strengthened their role in their community as messengers of peace.

“Imzad connects people,” said Mariama Aboubacar, 14, one of Taboukou’s trainees. “If you listen to imzad, you can’t lie, you cannot do bad things, and you must do your best every time.”

Mariama Aboubacar gets ready to play her hand-crafted imzad with her classmates. / Erica Frendach, USAID

Another trainee from Gougaram, said, “When we play the imzad, we can transmit messages of peace …. We can help to make our village a safer place.”

After months of practice, the young women recently convened for their first public performance at the court of the Sultanate in Agadez. The day of the concert, excitement filled the air. The young trainees, dressed in the traditional dress of the Tuareg, took the stage in front of the region’s highest authorities and a cheering crowd of around 900 who came to pay their respect to the young trainees and the revered teachers.

A crowd of around 900 attended the final imzad event. Attendees enjoy the imzad, dance, singing and comedic performances. / Erica Frendach, USAID

The girls started to play, a bit timid at first, but quickly gained confidence, moving the audience with their melodic tunes. Filled with pride after their performance, the girls joined the crowd in a celebration of their local culture organized in their honor.

The imzad musicians also enjoyed performances by local comedians, musicians and dancers. / Erica Frendach, USAID

“When I play the imzad … I feel like I have more power,” Aboubacar said with a big smile after her performance. “I got a lot of support from my family and friends. And when I practice in the evenings, the neighbors join to hear me play.”

USAID plans to continue to support the training sessions, bringing the two teams together to exchange techniques and encouraging the young women to be respected leaders. Perhaps, one day these young musicians will decide to become imzad trainers themselves and continue conveying positive messages to future generations.

As part of the USAID project, schools and libraries in Agadez received books on the imzad that were illustrated by a Nigerien artist. / Erica Frendach, USAID

About the Authors

Dan Ruge is the acting country representative for USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives in Niger. Follow USAID/OTI. Lisa Wortmeyer is the reporting officer for OTI’s partner in Niger, IOM. Follow IOM - UN Migration.

Follow @USAIDOTI on Twitter and Facebook. 
Follow @UNMigration on Twitter and Facebook.