Ever since Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel started raiding Africa for new musical ideas, it’s been well-known that the so-called “Dark Continent” is fertile ground when it comes to cool new/old sounds. In any number of African nations, traditional folk music has been cross-bred with Western instruments and playing styles (many of which, like blues, funk and even rock, descended from African music in the first place) to produce all kinds of nifty results: Congolese soukous, Senegalese mbalax, South African mbaqanga and township jive. Now Fela Kuti is the subject of a Broadway musical and even Jake owns a djembe that he occasionally hauls down to the Venice beach drum circle in hopes of meeting hippie chicks. African music has pretty much been demystified and commercialized. Right?
Well, not so fast. Even though they’ve played everywhere from the Hollywood Bowl to the World Cup opening ceremonies, Tinariwen remains something of an enigma: a group of nationless Tuareg nomads with electric guitars, still plying their trance-like, otherworldly music on portable generators out in the Sahara Desert somewhere in Mali, or Algeria, or possibly Niger. They’ve been at since the late ’70s and have been reaching Western audiences for nearly a decade, but even now, the typical response from anyone hearing their music for the first time is: “Holy shit! What is this stuff?”
The band’s story is a long and fascinating one, and the full version can be read on their MySpace page, so we won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that Tinariwen is a collective of like-minded musicians, poets and freedom fighters (in the ’80s, most of the band took a break from music to receive military training in Libya, then used their newfound fighting skills to take part in a Tuareg uprising against the Mali government in the early ’90s). For years, their music was the soundtrack of the Tuareg rebellion, and the musicians had to keep their identities secret, shrouding their faces behind cheches at performances and circulating their music on bootlegged cassette tapes. After the rebellion finally ended, Tinariwen came out of hiding and eventually caught the ear of some French world musicians called Lo’Jo, who invited them to perform in Europe—and pretty soon, word about the electric nomads and their dusty “desert blues” was out.
These days, Tinariwen is still led by the group’s founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, along with a core group of singers and musicians who sport fanciful nicknames like “Le Lion du Desert” and “Japanois” (French being the official language of Mali and Niger, it’s the unofficial second language of the Tuareg). But in the words of one chronicler of the band’s history, “They are more of a social movement than a desert rock ‘n’ roll band.” It is said that so many of the Tuareg have jammed with Tinariwen at one time or another that on any given night in the southern Sahara, half a dozen Tinariwen concerts are probably taking place—even while Ag Alhabib and some incarnation of the band is off touring the European festival circuit.
If you extend the notion that anyone who has played with Tinariwen is essentially a member of Tinariwen, their circle gets even larger: at this point, the band has performed with everyone from Carlos Santana to Robert Plant to one of our favorites here at TWBITW, the very Tinariwen-inspired Fool’s Gold. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Tinariwen has gotten around a lot over the last five years or so—these guys are nomads, after all.
One last detail, and then we’ll leave you with this clip from a documentary about the band. Tinariwen literally translates to “The Deserts,” which is what the Tuareg call the land they live on (they see the Sahara as several discreet deserts, not just one large one). And the style of music they play is often called “assouf,” a word that connotes loneliness, homesickness, and heartache—what American musicians might call “the blues.” It’s a great word to describe an amazing, haunting, truly unique form of music—the kind of music only Africa could have invented, but which speaks to all of us. (We don’t often wax grandiose here at TWBITW, but these guys do that to us.)