The founder of the band we are presenting to you today made his first guitar from a tin can, a stick and bicycle brake wire. The band, now known as Tinariwen, is now an award-winning group, but their path to success was not immediate, and required their patience and perseverance in times of great tension and struggle. This is a band of Tuareg people from the Sahara desert in Northern Mali, founded in 1979 in refugee camps in Algeria.
When the group was created, the first members were in the camps escaping persecution in their countries. The founder, Abrahim Ag Alhabib, witnessed the execution of his father (A Tuareg rebel) in 1964 during the first Tuareg rebellion, when he was four years old. He carried this anger and longing for his country and formed a group with Alhassane Ag Touhami and brothers Inteyeden Ag Ablil and Liya Ag Ablil in Tamanrasset, creating this unique desert rebel rock that carried the weight of their people’s struggle. One of their songs in particular speaks of the time of the first rebellion:
“’63 has gone but will return, those days have left their traces”
At the beginning, they were playing at parties and weddings in Algeria; they were called Kei Tnariwen by the local people, which loosely translates from the Tamasheq language as “The People of the Deseret or “Desert Boys”.
When in 1980 Lybian leades Muammar al-Gaddafi enlisted Tuareg men living illigaly in Lybia to receive military training, Ag Alhabib and the others joined to receive nine months training. In 1985 they answered a similar call, by Tuareg rebel leaders in Lybia, and this is where they met fellow band players Keddou Ag Ossade, Mohammed Ag Itlale (aka “Japonais”), Sweiloum, Abouhadid, and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni. The musicians joined together in playing songs which told the Tuareg struggle and stories of their people. This collective later became known as Tinariwen. In 1989 they returned to the founder’s homeland in Mali, precisely in the village of where he returned for the first time after 26 years. They created a makeshift studio and vowed to make free music for anyone who had a blank cassette, which they then distributed with songs about the Tuareg people and their struggle.
The sound of the band’s guitars reminds of classic blues; melancholic, tender and blinding’. This is a familiar sound that has inspired many, and the mix that is brought together by Tinawerin is truly unique. Although they gained international recognition in 1998 when a French group discovered them at a festival in Bamako, the band has not lost their original and humble roots. Even though they surely have the chance to move to Europe or America, they choose to stay in Mali and Algeria with their families. Moreover, as mentioned by Andy Morgan from the Guardian:
“Budget hotels, airport terminals and motorway service stations now form the backdrop to their roaming existence, their nomadism 2.0”
The life of Tuareg people has not been an easy one. In the first wave of independence in the 1950s and 1950s, the cause of the nomadic Tuareg, who had lived in the southern Sahara for centuries, was ignored, and their pleas for autonomy and independence went unheard. They saw their land taken from them and divided amongst these new independent states (Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger). The rulers of these countries had no interest in the cultural heritage of the Tuareg people, nor of their traditions and ways.
Their songs carry this sense of struggle and pride for their roots, mixing sounds from traditional Tuareg music, Berber styles and West African sounds. What is also tangible in the songs is the influence and inspiration the band has from from great guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, the latter now a great fan of the band. This mix of sounds, cultures and influences results in the most perfect juxtaposition, into something beautiful.
Watch a short documentary of the band here