Tinariwen describe their music as assouf, which translates from Tasheq as nostalgia. (Image: Marie Planeille/ Tinariwen)
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At the southern end of the Tanzerouft plain in the Sahara, west of the rocky Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains, sits the town of Tessalit. Tanzerouft is a place so barren and vast, a National Geographic wit once put it: “It is said that migrating birds land beside people just for company.”
For decades it has been the stronghold of rebels, first those fighting French colonial forces, later al-Qaeda fighters battling the Malian army. The presence of the Islamist rebels prevented Tessalit’s most famous sons from recording their latest CD, Emmaar, in the Sahara Desert, as they did with their previous release, Tassili.
Tinariwen, Tuareg tribesmen from Mali, have been producing their own brand of African-influenced rock music for 30 years. Their bluesy, graceful daydream music is built on a skeletal framework of electric and acoustic guitar, and poetry sung in Tamasheq, the language spoken by the Tuareg, and specific to the North African desert area spread across Mali, Algeria and Libya. It explores longing, revolution and awareness, and wields extraordinary power.
Emmaar, released in February, was recorded away from the desert around Tessalit. The band decamped to Joshua Tree, California but retained the sounds of the Sahara. Influenced by the Mojave Desert, best known for inspiring country rockers like Gram Parsons, they fleshed out their mix of traditional Malian music and rock.
Bassist Eyadou Ag Leche explained: “Deserts are places where we feel good to live and create. The air is different, the moods are different. Recording in the America brought us a special mood: the landscape, the big space, the South. We watched western movies during the recording and ate burritos and the engineer was from Nashville, so I suppose it changed the way our music was captured.” The tranquillity of the desert is at the heart of Tinariwen’s music, influenced as it is by the experiences and poetry of the Tuareg ishumar – the unemployed Saharan Generation X – who crossed the desert to flee persecution in Mali or to find work in Libya. It is the sound of a group of friends sitting around a campfire, sharing a cigarette and telling stories under the blanket of a starry desert night.
But more than that, it is the anger and hope of a generation of youngsters like bandleader, vocalist and guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who received military training in Libya and returned to fight in the Tuareg rebellion of the 1990s. Alhabib took up arms after his father was executed by the Malian government. He told The Guardian in 2011: “It was hard during the rebellion for me. But it healed me. I forgot everything, even the death of my father. It was like therapy.”
Tinariwen was formed in a Libyan refugee camp by Alhabib, Alhassane Ag Touhami and the Inteyeden brothers, Ag Ablil and Liya Ag Ablil. Alhabib built his first guitar with bicycle wire, a stick and a tin can and taught himself to play Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix songs. Influenced by rock and American Blues, the band’s first audiences were fellow refugees. Their soulful re-interpretation of the blues mixed with North African pop made them pied pipers to the ishumar and bootleg cassettes of their impromptu performances were traded throughout the Sahara.
Tinariwen’s music doesn’t really bloom to full intensity until the band plays live. (Image: Mário Pires)
In 1990, the Tuareg rebels began an insurgency against the Malian government, fighting for their own homeland. The members of Tinariwen put down their instruments and took up arms for the yearlong insurrection.
When Alhabib sings Ikyadarh Dim – “my lips fall silent, but my heart still speaks of you” – he could be speaking of a lover or the desert around Tessalit. It’s a song that best expresses what Tinariwen are about. Ag Leche describes it as being “between happiness and sadness”. It is the sound of survival, he explains. “It is about basking in the complex joy of having survived, even though further hardships lie ahead. It is a simple as being heartbroken, recovering and knowing there is likely more heartbreak to come.”
The Tuareg rebellion has burst into life sporadically, but now Tinariwen and the Malian government face a far more insidious enemy – al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. They have banned music in the areas they control. This has endangered the lives of all musicians and is a denial of the political, social and cultural force that is music in Mali.
Mali has a griot tradition that predates the modern country; post-independence music was used to build a nation and heal the fissures between the Arab and African communities. As successful, globe-spanning musicians, the band have been able to escape the worst of the tyranny but they continue to choose to live in the desert, in the border towns of Algeria and Niger. Their global success serves only to give them money to support extended families and a megaphone to highlight the plight of their homeland and the dying Tuareg culture.
The new sound of Tinariwen is born out of nostalgia, but it comes from a stubborn resistance to forgetting, to adapt the music they make to an ever-changing world. As long as they are given a stage Tinariwen will continue to celebrate an overlooked, oppressed culture. Alhabib explains: “The Tamasheq language uses a lot of metaphors. It comes from the old traditional Tuareg poetry that tells about the Tuareg tribes, their adventures in the desert, the wars, but also the beauty of the desert, the sky, the lands and the Assouf, our blues and nostalgia of an old time.”