Tende being played by Ruareg women in the inadan class
Tuareg women singing, clapping, and playing the tende drum

With over 1.2 billion practicing Muslims worldwide, Islam is the second most widely practiced religion, after Christianity. Islam reached West Africa through trans-Saharan trade, which brought sub-Saharan Africans into contact with Arab merchants and teachers and with nomadic North African Berber tribes, like the Tuareg [TWAH-reg], the majority of whom had converted to Islam by the end of the 9th century. Today, 90% of Mali’s population is Muslim, and the Tuareg continue to maintain distinct cultural traditions, like those involving the tende drum.


Among the Tuareg, many types of instrumental music are traditionally performed exclusively by women. The tende is a drum played by Tuareg women; it typically accompanies singing and clapping, also by women. The tende is made of a mortar (a vessel used to crush millet, a grain that is a common in Mali) with goatskin stretched tightly across the top and attached with a rope. The tende drum is not known to be used among any group in Mali other than the Tuareg.

Performances involving the tende, which frequently call for large groups of people, are most closely associated with special events, like weddings, births, camel races, and other social gatherings. In such performances, one woman is a soloist and is accompanied by other women who sing as a chorus and engage in call and response with the soloist. That is, the soloist sings one new line at a time, and the other singers respond with a repeated phrase. Songs of love and praise form a large portion of the traditional repertory of tende songs and the soloist often improvises lyrics as she sings.

Mali at a Glance

Population: 11,716,829 (July 2006 estimate)

Religion: Muslim 90%; indigenous beliefs 9%; Christian 1%

Photo: Gian Carlo Castelli Gattinara