Sacred songs from the Sahara

Sacred songs from the Sahara

Ahallil de Gourara

The Gourara region, situated about 1200 km. to the south of Algiers, contains over a hundred oases for a population of almost fifty thousand. Its principal town is Timimoun. Three different races cohabit there, one of Sudanese origin, one of Arab origin and finally the Zenatas, who live in the Berber-speaking part, i.e. in the centre and the west of the region. It is they who practise the ahallil.
The genre should preferably be performed after nightfall, when the restrictions imposed by the hot sun and the desert give way to the gentler climate of the night. A group of men sit round in a tight circle in the open air; in the middle stand a solo singer, a flautist, a gumbri player, and some percussion players (drum, stones and hands). In a deep-voiced chorus the men take up the laments, supplications, and requests for pardon and mercy, all sung first in high pitched tones by the soloist.


1 à 5Ahallil – 38’41
6 à 9Tagarrâbt – 27’31

Interpreters and instruments

Barka Foulani (direction)
Miloud Allaoui
Ahmed Benbarek
Touhami Bendjaouane
Brahim Deldali
Moussa Deldali
Mohamed Foulani
Mabrouk Ghandouri
Ahmed Ghiati
Salem Kaftali
Mohamed Kerzazi
Taïeb Maizi
Ahmed Nadjimi
Barka Yaichaoui


The word ahallil designates at the same time a musical genre and the band which plays it. As to its precise meaning, it is a subject of controversy. For some people, ahallil is a deformation of the Arabic ahl al layl (the people of the night), because this musical genre is generally always played at night. Others have it deriving from the word hilal, crescent, new night, always with reference to this nocturnal moment. Those who want to link it to Islam, establish a direct relationship to hallala, tahlil (profession of the phrase la ilaha illa allah / There is no god except God). Indeed, this genre is overflowing with prayers, petitions and refrains whereby God is glorified in his uniqueness. Whichever it may be, hall is first of all a music and a ballet which is particular to a region in south western Algeria: the Gourara (1300 km from Oran and the sea). This musical genre is played preferably at night, as we have said, when the constraints of the day are nothing but bad memories. Because we are in this particular region where life is a constant daily struggle against the desert, the sand, the scarcity of water and the intensity of the sun.

Even though this genre is primarily the privilege of the Gourara Zenatas, the Berbers of the Sahara, the inhabitants of the ksour-s (plural of kasr or fortified village) of the oasis of Tinerkouk and Taghouzi, who are essentially Arabic‑speaking, also appreciate it with pleasure and willingly partake in the game if the occasion presents itself. On grand occasions they are all united – such as during the mawlid (the celebration of the Prophet’s birth) whose fame, now known worldwide, makes Timimoun, the capital of Gourara, an international capital for  the period of a single celebration.

When the day has been totally engulfed by night, a group of men meet outside and form a circle around the abshniw (poet and soloist), the bab n tamdja (flautist)and the bab n qallal (percussionist, drummer). Sitting shoulder to shoulder, all repeat in chorus behind the soloist and his orchestra the laments consisting of petitions and prayers for pardon and grace. The bitterness of the day gives way to the gentleness of night.

Can we talk of poetry when discussing these songs which respect neither rhyme nor prosody? Yet great voluptuous pleasure is derived not from the words themselves but from their consonance. Ahallil sings of love and death, God and men, the pure and the impure. In sublime confusion, it gives rise to the coexistence of the sacred and the profane. As in all sacred musics, the frontier between God and the loved one remains very fragile. The pleasures of the ear are combined with those of the eyes in the perception of this choreographic spectacle whose harmony often brings out ululations from the women who put an even bigger weight of emotion and voluptuousness into an atmosphere that is already highly charged. Captured by the rhythm of his own voice, the abshiw performs ever more gracious positions. His genuflexions accentuated by the tonality of a more and more poignant high pitched voice, provoke to and fro movements on the part of the circle to which he addresses himself. Thus tableaux are formed of various patterns to the sound of a music which no longer addresses itself only to the ear but to the whole body which has become all ears.

However, ahallil also tells tales. It recounts history as well as stories. Local events, romantic epics, family feuds come between reminders of religious precepts and tales of memorable battles. Just like the songs of Griots, which they resemble a lot, ahallil songs contribute to the creation and safeguard of the collective memory of the group.

Not only men, but some women (the last of the most famous being Dada Aïcha who died in 1956) have transmitted the hopes and adversity of their times through ahallil-s. They have sung their hopes, their fears, their faith and their loves, they have mourned their dead ones and denounced the injustices.

Singing the ahallil

An ahallil is generally comprised of three parts:

  1. A prelude where the sound of a flute, as if coming from very far away, distils a few very plaintive notes. Here begins the search for the chord and the ahallil itself (strictly speaking) begins.
  2. Then comes the second phase. The abshniw introduces the first verse in a high-pitched and strong voice while clapping his hands at the same time. The tone is set, the chorus takes up this verse which will be used as a refrain during the entire ahallil. From this point on, there are no more gaps or silence, the abshniw and the chorus taking turns by playing on high and low-pitched tones, leaving little room for silence. The hands and the qallal-s ensure the rhythm in the back-ground. The sequence thus continues until the moment when the abshniw joins the chorus to sing the last verse. This signals the beginning of the end.
  3. This third phase is the finale. Part of the chorus repeats in persistent ostinato a phrase, accentuated by the other part of the chorus who repeats incessantly a shorter phrase made up of one or two words(llah ya llah; ahya ahya). The abshniw who continues to sing softly and differently from the group, suddenly raises his voice in a shrill cry whilst clapping his hands firmly. Everyone stops on the spot. Once one ahallil has finished, after a short rest, another one can start.

Singing the tagarrabt

The tagarrabt which is only  a variant of the ahallil is performed in a sitting position and inside an enclosed area. This “Chamber music” is an intimate rejoicing often of family- oriented character. Here again we have the same compound partition.

In this case, however, the presence of women is capital. It is even often up to them to conduct the session by replacing the abshniw. The flautist is replaced by a gumbri player (a small instrument with two cords) while a stone player (a flat stone hit by two pebbles) is added to the orchestra.

Generally speaking the words sung in a tagarrabt take up the ahallil repertory but put more accent on the profane character of the poems. It is an opportunity to delve deeply into the ttra, the repertory of love songs.

In ahallil as in tagarrabt, the high -pitched voice of the soloist, contrasting with the deep tone of the chorus, shreds through the silence of the night and rises towards an ever darkening sky. They start by singing petitions and invoking God, the Prophet and those of the deceased who are touched by saintliness. Between these people, we can find the saints of the Moslem pantheon in general, but especially the local saints: Sidi Moussa of Tasfaout, Sidi Al-Hadj Belqacem, Sidi Brahim of Ouadja; Sidi Omar of Igosten…

This part, which lasts for a  third of the night, is called lamsarrah (the levelling) because the meaning of the sung words is clear. Having neither esoteric meaning, nor suggestive illusions, the songs are addressed to God in a humble and simple language.

A second part, called the awgrut (named after an oasis in the region), covers the second third of the night. This part recalls the ancient epics. The sacred character of the songs is already less perceptible and becomes outrightly profane during the last third which lasts until early morning and which is called ttra. This is the part sought by the connoisseurs because here the abshniw is in perfect harmony with the chorus who now consists solely of those whose vocal range can match the power required by such a concert. This part is also very much in demand because it talks about love and adversity.

The instruments

The first instrument is the voice (ahku). All the beauty of ahallil resides in the strength and the aesthetic quality of the voice of its abshniw and in the harmony of that of the chorus members (lqum itettfen / the refrain group). The abshniw soothes his voice by using butter, chilli peppers and nutmegs. On great celebrations the singers resort to a mixture of lumps of klila (dried goat cheese), black pepper and a few other spices.

There is also the flute (tamdja), pierced by five finger holes on the upper side and a sixth, on the lower side, where the thumb is placed. The third hole (takhbut) is called the natter of ttra, the third phase of the ahallil devoted to profane songs. The fourth is called awgrut, after an oasis of the region. The fifth hole is called the ahiha. The sixth hole, on the underside, is called the tanibut.

The naming of even the smallest parts of the flute indicates the importance of such an instrument. It is the distinctive sign between ahallil n-abdad (stand-up ahallil) and tagarrabt (sitting ahallil). In this second genre, the flute is replaced by the gumbri. The gumbri is a sort of (double) string instrument which resembles the lute by its form (but much smaller) and is made locally from an empty calabash on which they stretch rabbit skin.

The qallal is a sort of darbuka, a drum whose terracotta body (50 to 70 cm long) is thinned in the middle and widens out at each end. A lower part (with a diameter of 10 to 20 cm) is covered by a membrane made out of goatskin or dromedary hide. The player of the instrument hangs it at the height of his belt using straps which he passes over his shoulders.

The stones: a simple smooth stone is placed directly on the floor and struck by two pebbles, one in each hand.

The hands also play a big role. From beginning to end, people do not stop clapping their hands in rhythms which change according to the song and the time.

Abderrahmane Moussaoui
Translated by Mona Khazindar

The recordings

First part: 1 to 5 – Ahallil 38’41

1- Bismillahi arrahman arrahimi
Bismillahi wa billahi
arrahman arrahimi a la ilahi

In the name of God the clement and the merciful
In the name of God and by God
The clement and the merciful
There is no God…

2- Bismillahi abdit
Mulana bghit ngharrad
Ya tkallam ya fummi
Ya sam’i ya wadhniyya
Ya shufi ya ‘ayni
U yatmashshaw rajjliyya
Salat ‘alik ya Muhammad al hadi.

In the name of God I have begun
Our Lord I wish to chirp
O speak O my mouth
O listen O my ear
O look O my eye.
And my feet will walk
Praise unto thee O Muhammad the guide.

3- Ya rsul ya sidi
Ya mulay Muhammad
Ya la ilaha illahi.
O messenger, o my Lord
O Lord Muhammad
O there is no God but God.

4- Bismillah al fattah
ya huwwa razzaq al mumnin.

In the name of God the victorious
O it is He the purveyor of believers.

5- Wash wrahu as sahyin
Wash wrahu
Illa Allah ala ilahu.

What is there after, O you who are lulled ?
What is there after ?
Only God, no other god.

Second part: 6 to 9 – Tagarrabt – 27’31

6- Ana bghit nqul bismillah
wa na bghit nqul taghfar danbi ya l’ali.

I want to say “In the name of God”
And I want to say: “You will forgive my sin, O You who transcends.”

7- Imma hamu
Ya Mammahu
Bismillah bdit slat nbi Muhammad lakhyar.

Mother Hamu
O Mammahu
In the name of God I have begun the praise of the Prophet Muhammad the best.

8- Bismillah bdit 
allah umma salli wa sallam ‘ala
habibuna Muhammad
Ya salla a’lik
ya zin la’mama.

In the name of God I have begun
God who blesses and salutes
Our beloved Muhammad
Praise unto thee
Bearer of the beautiful turban.

9- Bismillahi arrahmani
ya bghit ‘ala allah ndj’ib klami
ya wahad Allah wahad rabbi.

In the name of God the clement
O for God I want to say my words
O the one Allah, the Unique, my God.

  • Reference : 321.034
  • Ean : 794 881 498 024
  • Main artist : Ahallil de Gourara (أهاليل قورارة)
  • Year of recording : 1994
  • Year of publishing : 2000
  • Music style: Ahallil
  • Country : Algeria
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe