Over the past few years, I’ve written quite a bit about the internationally renowned Algerian Tuareg pioneers of the Desert Blues, Tinariwen, and as you may recall the act can trace their origins back to the late 1970s when the band’s founding member, guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, joined a small group of Tuareg rebels living in refugee camps in Libya and Algeria. The group of rebels 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. 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. 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 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 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 distribute music for free for anyone who supplied them a blank cassette tape. And within a short period of time, their cassettes were a highly sought-after item, and were 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. By 1992, 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 the members of Tinariwen receive a growing international profile, which included their 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. Since their formation, the collective has gone through a series of lineup changes, incorporating a younger generation of Tuareg musicians, who haven’t fought during the military conflicts of the elders, 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 received international acclaim, particularly over the past decade, as they’ve regularly toured across the European Union, North America, Japan and Australia, frequently playing sets at some of the world’s biggest music festivals — including Glastonbury, Coachella, Roskilde, Les Vieilles Charrues, WOMAD, FMM Sines, Printemps de Bourges and others, as well as some of the world’s best known music venues, as they 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. Along with that, a bloody and contentious series of religious and ethnic wars have splintered several nations across the region — including most recently Mali and Libya, where members of Tinariwen have proudly called home at various points of the band’s existence. Unsurprisingly, Tinariwen’s latest album Elwan (which translates into English as The Elephants) thematically focuses on the impact of Westernization and technology has had on their people, the band’s life of forced exile, and their longing for their ancestral homeland.
Elwan’s latest single “Nannuflay” is an atmospheric and shuffling blues centered around a hypnotic groove and a gorgeous, looping guitar line that features the renowned pioneers of the Desert Blues collaborating with guitar god Kurt Vile and the imitable, grunge rock pioneer Mark Lanegan, that manages to be a powerful connection between Saharan Africa and the West, and a mournful longing for a past that the song’s narrator knows he cannot have back; but along with that, there’s a tacit acknowledgement that time is passing by — sometimes faster than anyone wants to admit.
Directed by Axel Digoix, the animated video for “Nannuflay” follows an older Tuareg man, who returns to the camp where he grew up for a party. The man remembers both the joys and torments of the nomadic life, he once lived with a friend, who has since died, including childhood memories of life in the sand dunes, the adventures they had as teenagers, the fights, dramas and responsibilities of their adult lives. Throughout the video, the two men’s friendship details the lives of the Tauregs and the duty and obligation they feel towards each other and to passing along as much of the old traditions as humanly possible.