Now, if you’ve been frequenting this site over the past couple of years, you’d know that I’ve written quite about the internationally renowned band, Tinariwen, an act the can trace its origins to back to the late 1970s when founding member, guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, joined a small group of Tuareg rebels living in refugee camps in Libya and Algeria. The rebels that Ag Alhabib hooked up with 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 — and they 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 the traditional Taureg music at various weddings, parties and others occasions across both Algeria and Libya. Interestingly, as the story goes, when the quartet had started, they didn’t have a name; but people across the region, who had seen them play had begun 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. 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. 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 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 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. Most recently, a bloody and contentious war has splinted several nations across Saharan African — including wars that have devastated Mali and Libya. And unsurprisingly Tinariwen’s latest album Elwan (which translates into English as The Elephants) thematically focuses on the impact of encroaching Westernization and technology has had on the Tuareg people and of the band’s forced life of exile.
And as you would hear on album singles “Tenere Taqqal,” and “Assawt,” the material possesses an aching longing for a way of life and for a home, that the members of the band recognize that they may never have and may never be able to return to again. Within those singles, there’s a tacit acknowledgement that life continues onward, as it almost always does; but there’s also urgency within the material that seems inspired by the members of the collective recognizing that they have a sacred and profound duty of ensuring that something of the old traditions be preserved and passed on to future generations. The album’s second single “Sastanàqqàm” is as the band’s Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni explains “an ode to the Sahara and its Nomads. It expresses the needs of the traveler as he crosses the desert on his mount. Essential needs: find water and a way to preserve it, find a good mode of transport. But also the love-hate relationship with the desert, the natural elements and the certainty that we will always go back to it.” That sentiment is paired with a shuffling and deeply hypnotic groove, some sinuous guitar work and propulsive polyrhythm, reminding the listener that at the core of the song evokes the small yet profound joy of returning home, seeing faces like yours and hearing your language; of seeing beloved and familiar sites after being away for long time; of returning to the place where your ancestors lived, played, wondered, hunted, prayed and died.
The recently released music video for “Sastanàqqàm” is reportedly inspired by real life events. When the members of the band returned to their homeland in 2006 they spent some time wandering around looking for old friends, associates, family members, neighbors and the like. Roughly 1,000 miles away from their homeland in Northern Mail, the members of Tinariwen came across six young musicians who hailed from M’Hamid el Ghizlane. These boys were the only boys that the members of the collective came across during their visit; but they immediately saw a reflection of themselves, their dreams and aspirations in the music they heard the boys play. In the subsequent years, the boys from M’Hamid el Ghizlane learned the Tinariwen catalog note for note, word for word although they couldn’t speak a word of Tamashek. When the members of the band returned to the town to record the material, which would comprise Elwan, their disciples had displayed a mastery of Tinariwen’s catalog — and the members of the band recognized that they had passed the torch on to their young disciples; in fact, the band decided to invite their disciples to be in the music video for “Sastanàqqàm,” symbolically standing in for the members of the band. The video follows as some of Tinariwen’s elder members wrapped new turbans around the heads of their young disciples, symbolically marking the passage from boyhood and manhood; but also marking how music can be transmitted across generations and influence young men and women to pick up instruments and speak truth to power. Let that serve as a reminder that music and art hold great power — a power that even the most autocratic demagogue can’t possibly stop.
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.
I QUESTION YOU
TÉNÉRÉ, CAN YOU TELL ME OF ANYTHING BETTER THAN TO HAVE YOUR FRIENDS AND YOUR MOUNT,
AND A BRAND NEW GOATSKIN, WATERTIGHT,
TO FIND YOUR WAY
BY THE LIGHT
OF THE FOUR BRIGHT STARS OF HEAVEN,
TO KNOW HOW
TO FIND WATER IN
THE UNLIKELIEST OF PLACES, AND ENLIST THE MOMENTUM OF THE WIND
TO HELP YOU MOVE FORWARD
TELL ME, TÉNÉRÉ
HOW YOU AND I
CAN REMAIN UNITED,
WITH NO HATE FOR EACH OTHER.
TÉNÉRÉ, I CAN NOW ADMIT THAT
I HAVE TRAVELLED FAR THROUGH THIS WIDE WORLD.
TÉNÉRÉ, I GIVE YOU MY OATH
THAT AS LONG AS I’M ALIVE,
I WILL ALWAYS COME BACK
The band will be on touring across North America throughout March and April and it includes two 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