If you’ve been frequenting this site at any point throughout its six year history — shall I say six and a half years now? — that I’ve increasingly become a proponent of presenting music without concern to genre or country of origin and that the site be in some way, representative of the diverse and eclectic sounds I’d come across on the streets, businesses, homes, house parties, churches, bars and clubs of the New York City (or perhaps more specifically the borough of Queens) that I was born and raised in; and that it would follow my own childhood obsessions and passions. And over the years, you may be somewhat familiar with the internationally renowned Tuareg band Tinariwen. Founded by guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the band can trace its origins back to the mid and late 1970s when Alhabib, who had been inspired to learn the guitar from an old Western, in which a cowboy played a guitar, joined a small group of fellow Tuareg rebels and dissidents living in refugee camps in Libya and Algeria. Interestingly, those musicians had been influenced by radical chaabi protest music of Moroccan groups like Nass El Ghiwane and Jil Jilala; Algerian pop rai; and western artists like Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, Dire Straits, Jimi Hendrix, Boney M, and Bob Marley.
While living in Tamanrasset, Algeria, Ag Alhabib started a band with Alhassane Ag Touhami and brothers Inteyeden Ag Ablil and Liya Ag Ablil that had played the traditional Taureg music at various weddings and parties across both Algeria and Libya. And as the story goes, when they had started, the band didn’t have a name; however, people across the region, who had seen them play had began calling them Kel Tinariwen, which in the Tamashek language (the tongue of the Taureg people) translates roughly as “The People of the Deserts” or “The Desert Boys.”
In 1980, Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi released a decree inviting all young Tuareg men, who were living illegally in Libya to receive full military training, as part of his dream of forming a Saharan regiment, comprised of the best young Tuareg fighters to further his territorial ambitions in Chad, Niger, and elsewhere across Northern Africa. Al Alhabib and his bandmates answered the call and received military training. Whether or not the founding members of the band truly believed in Gaddafi’s military ambitions would be difficult to say — but on a practical level, a steady paycheck to support yourself and your family back home certainly is an enticement. Five years later, Ag Alhabib, Ag Touhami and the Ag Ablil brothers answered a similar call by leaders of the Libyan Tuareg movement, who desired an autonomous homeland for their people, and wound up meeting fellow musicians Keddou Ag Ossade, Mohammed Ag Itlale (a.k.a “Japonais”), Sweiloum Ag Alhousseyni, Abouhadid Ag Alhousseyni, and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni — all who had sang and played guitar. The musicians joined together in a collective — now famously known across the world as Tinariwen — in order to write songs about the issues facing their people. They built a makeshift studio and vowed to record and then distribute music for free for anyone who supplied them a blank cassette tape. And perhaps unsurprisingly, their DIY cassettes were highly sought after and were traded throughout Saharan Africa. Talk about punk rock as hell, huh?
In 1989 the members of the collective had left Libya and relocated to Ag Alhabib’s birthplace of Tessalit, Mali; however, by the next year Mail’s Tuareg population revolted against the Malian government, with some members of the collective participating as rebel fighters. After a peace agreement known as the Tamanrasset Accords were reached in early 1991, the members of Tinariwen left the military and devoted themselves to music full-time, and by the following year, some of the members of the band went to Abidjan, Ivory Coast to record a cassette at JBZ Studios, which they followed up with extensive gigs for their fellow Tuaregs across Saharan Africa — and it also helped further establish the band’s reputation by word-of-mouth.
After collaborating with renowned French world music ensemble Lo’Jo, the members of Tinariwen started to receive greater international attention outside of Saharan Africa, including their first British live set at Africa Oye, one of the UK’s largest African music/African Diaspora festival. Building on the increasingly buzz they were receiving, the band released their first full-length effort, The Radio Tisdas Sessions, their first recording to be released outside of their native Northern Africa. Coincidentally, this has gone on as the collective has gone through some lineup changes, incorporating a younger generation of Tuareg musicians, musicians who didn’t live during some of the military conflicts of the older generation, including bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, percussionist Said Ag Ayad, guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid, guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida, and vocalists Wonou Walet Sidati and the Walet Oumar sisters.
As the collective has started to see greater international attention, they’ve toured regularly across the European Union, North America, Japan and Australia, often playing at some of the world’s biggest and highly renowend music festivals including Glastonbury, Coachella, Roskilde, Les Vieilles Charrues, WOMAD, FMM Sines Thomand Printemps de Bourges. And they’ve won over an incredible list of celebrity fans and champions including Carlos Santana, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, U2‘s Bono and The Edge, Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke, Coldplay‘s Chris Martin, Henry Rollins, Brian Eno, and TV on the Radio, among others. Personally, I find their growing profile in the West to be rather unsurprising — although they employ Western instrumentation, their sound manages to evoke both surreal and brutally harsh beauty of the Saharan Desert, the poetry and wisdom of a rough and tumble, rebellious, proud people whose old-fashioned way of live is disappearing thanks to encroaching Westernization and technology and most recently brutal and bloody civil wars that have splintered several of nations that inhabit their territory — including wars between religious and political factions in Mali and Libya.
Interestingly, Tinariwen’s forthcoming full-length effort Elwan (which translates into English as The Elephants) is slated for a February 10, 2017 release, and the album thematically focuses both on the disappearing traditions of the Tuareg people and of being forced into exile — oddly enough as the members of the band were touring the world. And the album’s gorgeous first single “Tenere Taqqal” possesses an understated longing for a way of life and for a home, which as Thomas Wolfe wisely suggested they can never return to and will never get back. And yet there’s a tacit acknowledgment that life must continue onward and that they have a profoundly important duty of ensuring that something of the old traditions can be preserved and passed on to future generations. As a result, the single while being slow-burning and brooding also manages to possess an understated, quiet urgency — all while feeling older than time itself. Every time, I’ve listened to this track I can picture sitting among the Tuareg or the Bedouins at a campfire, as they tell tales of creation or of the great mystics and teachers, who have led flocks of faithful . .
The recently released animated video was directed by Axel Digoix and it vividly depicts the desert’s harshness, cruelty and beauty, and the profound spiritual and physical connection that the Tuareg people have towards it, while pointing out that their traditions and their world is being violently torn apart.