Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit about the internationally renowned Saharan blues/Saharan rock collective Tinariwen, an act that can trace its origins to the late 197s when its founding member, guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who as the story goes had been inspired to learn the guitar from an old Western film, in which a cowboy played guitar, joined a small group of Tuareg rebels living in refuge camps throughout Libya and Algeria. Interestingly, Ag Alhabib and his fellow rebels had been influenced by the 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, and started writing music that meshed the traditional folk music of their people with Western rock, reggae and blues-leaning arrangements
After relocating to Tamanrasset, Algeria, Ag Alhabib started a band with Alhassane Ag Touhami and brothers Inteyeden Ag Ablil and Liya Ag Ablil that had played traditional Tuareg music with both Western and traditional instrumentation and arrangements at weddings, parties and other occasions across the Algeria, Libya and Mali. When this quartet started, they didn’t have a name; however, people across the region, who had seen them play had began calling the quartet, 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. At this point, the lineup of Tinariwen was completed and the members of the collective began writing songs about the issues and concerns of their people.
The members of the band built a makeshift studio and then 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.
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, which 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. As the collective has pushed forward throughout the years, it has gone through lineup changes, incorporating a younger generation of Tuareg musicians, some who weren’t even born during some of the military conflicts of the older generation or whose lives were impacted by the fighting during the 1990s, 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 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 although they employ both Western instrumentation and traditional instrumentation and arrangements, their sound has always managed to evoke the surreal and brutally harsh beauty of the Saharan Desert, the poetry and wisdom of a rough and tumble, rebellious and proud people whose way of life is disappearing thanks to encroaching Westernization and technology. And most recently yet another bloody and contentious war has splintered several nations across the Tuareg territory — including devastating wars across Mail and Libya. Now, if you had been frequenting this site over the past couple of months, you’d likely recall that the Tuareg collective’s forthcoming album 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 a reluctant and begrudging exile — with the realization that many of the collective’s members may never see their homeland again.
With Elwan‘s third and latest single “Assawt” the band’s frontman, guitarist and founding member Ag Alhabib turns the focus to the women of the Sahara, strong women who in his words are “searching for their freedom” and “who toil for the revolution,” recognizing their role and place in the long and often bloody fight for a Tuareg homeland. Ag Alhabib’s mournful yet soulful vocals are paired around a shuffling and snaking acoustic guitar line, a sinuous bass line, propulsive handclap-led percussion with the band joining in on a harmonized and anthemic hook. Interestingly, while drawing from the Tuareg tradition, the song also manages to subtly nod at the sounds of Mali, Nigeria and elsewhere as it continues to cement the collective’s reputation for crafting tight grooves.
The band and their label have done a kind favor by providing an English translation of the song’s lyrics, which you can check out below.
That’s the voice
of the Tamashek women
Searching for their freedom.
Those are the thoughts
of the old women
Living in a Sahara devoid of water,
Desiccated and miserable,
My wish is for it
to stop being subservient.
This is a message for those
Who toil for the revolution.
The band will be embarking on a North American tour, which will include two NYC area dates at Brooklyn Bowl. Check out the tour dates below.
30 MARCH 2017 – SOLANA BEACH, CA : BELLY UP TAVERN
31 MARCH 2017 – LOS ANGELES, CA : THE FONDA THEATRE
01 APRIL 2017 – BERKELEY, CA : THE UC THEATRE
02 APRIL 2017 – PORTLAND, OR : REVOLUTION HALL
04 APRIL 2017 – SEATTLE, WA : BENAROYA HALL
05 APRIL 2017 – VANCOUVER, BC : CHAN CENTRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS
7 APRIL 2017 – SALT LAKE CITY, UT : THE STATE ROOM
08 APRIL 2017 – DENVER, CO: SWALLOW HILL MUSIC ASSOCIATION
10 APRIL 2017 – MINNEAPOLIS, MN : CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER
11 APRIL 2017 – CHICAGO, IL : OLD TOWN SCHOOL OF FOLK MUSIC
12 APRIL 2017 – TORONTO, ONT : MASSEY HALL
13 APRIL 2017 – MONTREAL, QC : PLACE DES ARTS
14 APRIL 2017 – BOSTON, MA : ROYALE
15 APRIL 2017 – BROOKLYN, NY : BROOKLYN BOWL
16 APRIL 2017 – BROOKLYN, NY : BROOKLYN BOWL
18 APRIL 2017 – PHILADELPHIA, PA : UNION TRANSFER
19 APRIL 2017 – WASHINGTON, DC : BARNS AT WOLF TRAP
21 APRIL 2017 – PITTSBURGH, PA : CARNEGIE OF HOMESTEAD HALL