Over the past couple of years of this site’s nine year history, I’ve written quite a bit about the internationally renowned Algerian Tuareg pioneers of Desert Blues and JOVM mainstays Tinariwen. The act can trace its origins back to the late 1970s when the band’s founding member, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib (guitar) joined a small group of Tuareg rebels living in refugee camps in Libya and Algeria. The rebels Ag Alhabib hooked up with had been influenced by radical chaabi protest music of 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.
Upon 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 Taureg music at various weddings, parties and other occasions across both Algeria and Libya. 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 issued 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 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 initial lineup was completed and the members of the collective began writing songs about the issues and concerns of their people.
Then the members of the band built a makeshift studio, vowing to to record and distribute music for free to anyone, who supplied them a blank cassette tape. Within a short period of time, the band’s cassette tapes were highly sought-after and were popularly traded throughout Saharan Africa.
In 1989 the collective had left Libya and relocated to Ag Alhabib’s birthplace of Tessalit, Mali; but by the next year, Mail’s Tuareg population revolted against the Malian government — with some members of the collective participating as rebel fighters in that conflict. After the Tamanrasset Accords were reached and agreed upon in early 1991, the members of Tinariwen, who had fought in the conflict had left the military and devoted themselves to their music full-time. In R1992, 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 furthered the reputation they had developed primarily by word-of-mouth.
A collaboration with renowned French, world music ensemble Lo’Jo helped expand the band’s profile outside Saharan Africa. They also played a live set at Africa Oye, one of the UK’s largest African music/African Diaspora festival. Building on the increasing buzz, the band released their full-length debut The Radio Tisdas Sessions, which was their first recorded effort to be released outside of Saharan Africa. Interestingly, since their formation back in the late 70s, the collective have gone through a series of lineup changes, gradually incorporating younger generations of Tuareg musicians, many who haven’t seen the military conflicts that their elders have, 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.
Despite their lineup changes, Tinariwen has become internationally known, as a result of regular touring across the European Union, North America, Japan and Australia, frequently playing some of the world’s biggest festivals and biggest music venues and clubs. But one thing has been consistent throughout — they’ve continued with a sound that evokes the harsh and surreal beauty of their homeland, centered around the poetry and wisdom of a rough and tumble, proud and rebellious people, whose old-fashioned way of life is rapidly disappearing as a result of technology and encroaching Westernization.
Additionally, a contentious and bloody series of infighting and wars between the various religious and ethnic groups across the region have splintered several nations throughout the region — including most recently Mali and Libya, where members of Tinariwen have proudly called home at various points of the band’s history. Unsurprisingly, the band’s last full-length effort, 2017’s Elwan (which translates into English as “The Elephants”) thematically focuses on the impact of Westernization and technology has had on their people and their way of life, their exile as a result of the religious and ethnic infighting that has destroyed their homeland, their longing for their ancestral homeland, the uncertain future of their homeland — and the tacit understanding that some of the band members may never see their homeland ever again.
Slated for a September 6, 2019 release through Anti- Records, the acclaimed JOVM mainstays’ forthcoming album Amadjar reportedly is as close as listeners can get to the proverbial soul of the band as it was recorded in a natural setting. Accompanied by their French production team, who arrive in an old camper can that has been converted into a makeshift studio, the Saharan Africa JOVM mainstays’ journey to the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott takes about 12 days or so. Every evening, the caravan stopped to set up camp and the band went to work under the stars to prepare for the recording sessions, talking through things, and letting their guitar motifs, thoughts and long buried songs come. Then, during a final two-week camp in the desert around Nouakchott, the band, joined by The Mauritanian griotte Noura Mint Seymali and her guitarist husband, Jeiche Ould Chigaly, recorded their songs under large tent in a few live takes, without headphones or effects.
Once recorded, a host of Western musicians added additional instrumentation including the Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis, who contributed violin; Micah Nelson, the son of the legendary Willie Nelson and a member of Neil Young’s backing band, contributed mandolin and charango; Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley contributes guitar; Cass McCombs, who contributes guitar; and Rodophe Burger.
Lyrically and thematically, the album explores the continuing political, social, humanitarian and environmental problems faced in their home country of Mali and continues Tinariwen’s pursuit to highlight the plight and issues of their people through their music. The album continues the band’s ongoing work of highlighting the plight of the Tuareg community — from the collapse of infrastructure and public services, climate change and the ongoing political and military conflicts that have plagued their homeland since it gained independence in 1960.
Interestingly, Amadjar’s latest single is the gorgeous, acoustic track “Taqkal Tarha.” Centered around a shimmering and looping acoustic guitar line, a propulsive bass line, percussion that evokes a galloping horse and call and response vocals paired with Micah Nelson’s playing, the song manages to be an effortless synthesis of an ancient sound — one that’s older than time itself, with something far more contemporary (albeit subtly so).