Almost uniquely for any band around the world, Tinariwen’s background story is even more interesting than their music, which is not at all to disparage their gripping variation on Saharan desert blues that has made them a worldwide success. It’s simply to say that their history is extraordinary: Tinariwen originate from a north-eastern region of Mali and belong to the Islamic Tuareg tribe, a Berber-descended group whose Saharan homeland spreads across geopolitical borders into Libya, Algeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Essentially displaced, and with a woman-friendly variation of Islam that goes against the grain of too many North African governments, the Tuareg people have been actively engaged in numerous conflicts throughout the post-colonial era.
In the first of many Tuareg rebellions, Tinariwen’s lead singer Ibrahim Ag Alhabib witnessed the murder of his father at the hands of the Malian militia. He was only 4 years old. Subsequently forced to flee, Alhabib met with other future band members whilst in exile in Algeria. The 80s saw them journeying to Libya where one Colonel Gaddafi was offering access to military training for all rebel outcasts. Gaddafi was playing on the Tuareg’s hopes of regaining territory in Mali, whilst secretly intending to use them for his own despotic dreams of Libyan expansion. Tinariwen’s members had realised this by the end of the 80s, and soon left Gaddafi’s military base to pursue their own careers.
Here is the part that remains the most fascinating to western audiences: in 1990 many of the band’s members were involved in violent Tuareg uprisings against the incumbent governments of Niger and Mali. Involved in real fighting, as opposed to western musicians where rebellion is strictly metaphorical, much has been made of how the band’s anti-authoritarian music is given rare authenticity by their past militarism. However, as Andy Morgan observed (a specialist on West Africa and the Sahara who met with the band in their homeland 10 years ago), this simplistic approach to the band is somewhat limiting:
Like almost every other European or North American I was initially dazzled by these stories of ‘real’ rebellion and I’d admit to putting excessive emphasis on them when we started promoting Tinariwen in Europe. Prolonged contact with the band has since wised me up. It’s clear that the rebellion is a mute subject for them, one that harbours a great deal of pain and bad memories. There was adventure, and there was heroism too, but in the end, the actual conflict was but a brief episode in a long struggle which is full of unexpected shade and subtlety.– Andy Morgan
“Unexpected shade and subtlety” could also describe the joy of listening to their music for those who get it. To untrained ears, the Tinariwen sound can appear monotonous and repetitive, even boring at album-length, with crisp guitar solos and vocals of limited range and power. Their “desert blues” can sound more “desert” than “blues” – that is, deserted of western notions of melody and harmonics. Every album is so consistent in tone and sound that it can be difficult for the casual listener to tell them apart.
There are subtle differences in the Tinariwen sound between albums, however. For example on Amadjar, their latest and possibly their best (they’re so consistent it’s hard to tell), there is a marked return to the acoustic instrumentation of 2011’s Tassili, following the dominant electric guitars on their more recent albums. The instruments that stand out most from the sere groove on this one are the acoustic guitars, propelling both the rhythm and the limited melodies. What’s more, the guest musicians mostly play unplugged instruments: Warren Ellis appears twice on violin, Micah Nelson plays charango and mandolin on “Taqkal Tarha”, Cass McCombs acoustic guitar on “Kel Tinawen”. Only Jeiche Ould Chighaly guests on a plugged-in guitar, working up a Hendrix-inspired wah-wah storm on “Zawal”, and helping to make that track so scintillating.
Generally, though, the album has the feel of an unplugged jam session round a desert fire. Which, in fact, it partly was: much of the album was recorded “on the road” in the Western Sahara, with subsequent studio overdubs taking place in Algeria and France. This helps to explain the off-the-cuff feeling, with chatter left in between songs that help to urge you closer towards the commune. Overall, there’s the feeling of an invitation into the warmth of the camp fire’s inner circle.
Once you’re there the music will be sure to hypnotise: Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni’s lead vocals and Said Ag Ayad’s percussion on various instruments convey grit and determination that’s utterly absorbing. The guitars create such a vivid picture of the dry desert landscape you can practically hear the sand brushing off their strings. And when the background female vocals take over, which is often, the band creates a genuine, unforced atmosphere of communion.
Community is indeed an important theme for these exiles, and along with death and the frightening majesty of the desert forms one of the main preoccupations in the lyrics that are helpfully translated here on their website. The surprise when perusing these comes near the end: two love songs, “Mhadjar Yassouf Idjan” and “Waartla”, followed by a beguiling character portrait of a man called “Lalla” who makes people run away because his beard is “matted like the bark of the teak tree”.
Of course, the references in the lyrics can be rather obscure for those of us in the English-speaking world. So let’s instead revel in the music: in its brittle beauty, in the communal spirit it evokes, in the “unexpected shade and subtlety” that emerges from each and every song to reward the close listener. Tinariwen’s consistency is remarkable; they seem as incapable of making a bad album as The Beatles, The Stones or Joni Mitchell in their primes. Amadjar is just the latest in that caravan of consistency, and will certainly not be the last.