They’ve played at Glastonbury and Coachella and brought down the house at New Orleans’ legendary House of Blues. Bob Dylan, Coldplay and Carlos Santana are fans and in 2012, this nomadic group of Tuareg musicians from the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali went to Hollywood to pick up their first Grammy award for Best World Music Album, making Tinariwen the first North African band ever to win the award.
Tinariwen is by no means a new rock band. It was formed in 1979 by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib (pictured right, who kinda reminds me of a North African Jimmy Hendrix). He built his first guitar from a tin can, a stick and bicycle brake wire after seeing a western film with a guitar-playing cowboy. After witnessing the execution of his father (a Tuareg rebel) during an uprising in Mali in 1963, he grew up in refugee camps in the deserts around Algeria. It was here in this harsh and truest of deserts that Ibrahim would meet his bandmates, also exiles who fled their homes to become nomadic refugees. At the camps, a local Arab man gifted Ibrahim his first real guitar and with his fellow musicians, they began to write songs about the struggle of the nomadic people.
Tinariwen comes from the plural of ténéré, “desert”. In Tuareg terms, the Sahara is not one desert but many, so they call it Tinariwen (“the Deserts”).
In the 1980s, Libyan ruler Muammar al-Gaddafi put out a decree inviting all young Tuareg men who were living illegally in Libya to receive full military training. Ibrahim and other bandmates answered the call, only to return disillusioned. In the 1990s, they became revolutionaries against the Malian government who had exiled them for decades, all the while recording music for anyone who supplied blank cassette tapes, which were subsequently traded widely throughout the Sahara region.
Pictured above, a member of the group waits backstage before their set at Glastonbury.
At the turn of the new millenium, the band first began to find international success, transcending their North African roots after they came to the attention of a veteran French music manager.
Tinariwen expanded the group and took on several younger Tuareg musicians, giving the collective a multi-generational line-up. Due to the difficulties of transportation and communication in the Sahara region, the group rarely has exactly the same line-up on its international tours or even in the studio, coming together in different combinations to perform, mirroring their nomadic lifestyle.
Tinariwen are no strangers to recording entire albums in the open air of the Saharan desert, although for their most recent album, with the impossible political situation in Mali and its northern desert, the group instead set up a studio at a house in California’s Mojave desert. Despite being far from home, one U.S critic wrote, “this music still moves like a sandstorm”.
Their sound is an eclectic mix of influences including Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, even Elvis, and of course their own traditional nomadic song. Hypnotic swirling guitars and rolling rhythms accompany Ibrahim’s vocals which translate to lyrics such as, “What have you got to say, my friends, about this painful time we’re living through?”
(c) Marie Planeille
(c) Alioune Ba
The Sahara Desert’s answer to The Beatles?
Discover the sounds of Tinariwen.