Originally started in 1979, Tinariwen is a group of Touareg men from Mali, in western Africa. Having grown up in the Sahara, it is no surprise that their name means “”deserts” in their native Tamashek language. Founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib was inspired by a Hollywood western featuring a guitar, so he built one out of a tin can and bicycle brake wire. Formed out of a group of refugee’s in Libya, the group eventually settled down in their native Mali. The group now features eight members; a few who are have been with the band since the beginning, but also a few younger additions.
The early years involved a group of men playing songs together to pass the time, all this while various rebellions and wars were going on around them In 1991 the fighting had died down enough for the band to start to play local concerts and festivals in west Africa. In 1999 they were finally invited to play a few shows in France. This led to their headlining a festival in Mali in 2001 and further offers to tour Europe more extensively. This gained them the attention and publicity of major artist such as: Thom Yorke, Bono and the Edge, Chris Martin, Robert Plant and TV on the Radio.
In 2011 they released their 5th album, Tassili, which continues with their signature sound. Using traditional African beats, and guttural vocals of the Tamashek language. It is the guitar work that stands out; it is unlike what rock and roll in American has trained our ears to hear. Using both strumming and picking techniques, combined with unique rhythms it makes for simultaneously contemporary and traditional sounding melodies.
Their lyrics are mostly about the struggle for life and survival in the harsh environment of the desert and the conflict that has engulfed their country. On “Tenere Taqqim Tossam” they sing,
We come to you when the sun goes down
Leaving a trail of blood across the sky
Which the black night wipes out
The desert is hot and its water hard to find
Water is life and soul
I cry out to God on High
To bring my people together
But their lyrics also speak of a deep love of place. Like in the song “Tameyawt” where they sing,
How I miss Tameyawt
His walls are baked of earth
His village has turned green again
And his mountain boulders are smooth and long
My homeland is Timyawin
At times using horns, Tinariwen’s music embodies the struggle to hold to hope and strength, and it helps move the audience from a place of sorrow to the triumph of joy; courage to enter the fight.
- Greg Veltman