A number of artists are referred to as 'revolutionary', but in the case of Tinariwen, their musical output and messages of peace really have resonated across musical and political ground. While every young band dreams of making their mark on the world, led by a taste of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion, Tinariwen’s tale is a little more elaborate than your typical garage-band-rises-to-fame anecdote. Their musical rising was built not from teenage angst, but a need to vocalise their message of peace and to draw attention to the new political and social conscience developing in the southern Sahara.
Tinariwen was founded by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. As a young boy, he saw a Western starring a cowboy playing a guitar, and mesmerized by the sounds he heard, created his own homemade guitar from a tin can, stick and bicycle brake wire, thrashing out old Tuareg and modern Arabic pop tunes and developing his musical ear.
His younger years were turbulent. Aged four he witnessed the execution of his father, a Tuareg rebel, during a 1963 uprising in Mali. In the mid 1970s, his homeland was devastated by drought, killing the animals and destorying the nomadic life that had been practiced by his forefathers for generations. Ag Alhabib spent his childhood residing in refugee camps, and later lived with other Tuareg exiles in Libya and Algeria. In the late 1970s, he met other musicians in the Tuareg rebel community and began exploring the radical chaabi protest music of Moroccan groups like Nass El Ghiwane and Jil Jilala; Algerian pop rai; and western rock and pop artists like Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, Dire Strights, Jimi Hendrix, Boney M and Bob Marley.
Ag Alhabib then formed a band with Inteyeden Ag Ablil, his brother Liya, Ag Ablil, and Hassan Ag Touhami in Tamanrasset, Algeria to play at parties and weddings. They acquired their first real acoustic guitar in 1979 and although they hadn’t yet come up with a name, people began to call them Kel Tinariwen’, which in the Tamashek language translates as "The People of the Deserts" or "The Desert Boys."
In 1980, all young Tuareg men who were living illegally in Libya were called to receive full military training, which Ag Alhabib and his bandmates answered. In 1985, a similar call was put out, this time by leaders of the Tuareg rebel movement in Libya. During this time the group met fellow musicians Keddou Ag Ossade, Mohammed Ag Itlale (aka "Japonais"), Sweiloum, Abouhadid, and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni and joined together in a collective in order to create songs about the issues facing the Tuareg people. They built a makeshift studio and vowed to record music for free for anyone who supplied a blank cassette tape. The resulting homemade cassettes were traded widely throughout the Sahara region.
In 1990 the Tuareg people of Mali revolted against the government, with some members of Tinariwen participating as rebel fighters. After a peace agreement was reached in 1991, the musicians left the military and devoted themselves to. They played occasional gigs throughout the Sahara region, gaining word-of-mouth popularity among the Tuareg people.
In 1998, Tinariwen came to the attention of the French world music ensembleLo’Jo, who met two members of the collective at a music festival in Bamako, leading to a number of Tinariwen members performing with Lo'Jo under the name Azawad. The two groups organized the 2001 Festival of the Desert in Essaken, Mali with Tinariwen headlining. The festival brought much outside attention to Tinariwen, and by late 2001, Tinariwen had performed at WOMAD, Roskilde and the South Bank in London. Their debut, The Radio Tisdas Sessions was released in 2001, marking Tinariwen's first recording to be released outside of northern Africa.
Since 2001 Tinariwen have played concerts around the world, gaining many celebrity fans, including Carlos Santana, Robert Plant (who has named them as his ‘favourite band’), U2, Thom Yorke, Chris Martin, Henry Rollins, Brian Eno and TV On The Radio, and are now signed to Tom Waits’ label in the USA.
The Tinariwen collective has also added several younger Tuareg musicians, who didn’t live through the military conflicts experienced by the older members, but have contributed to the collective's multi-generational evolution.
Many commentators assume that Tinariwen are influenced by American blues music and by blues rock bands in general, and though there are similarities, the Tinariwen guitar style was actually developed in relative isolation and has its roots in West African music. The members claim never to have heard American blues music until they began to travel internationally in 2001.
Their latest release ‘Tassili’ continues to expand on their unique playing technique, and sees a host of celebrity friends getting involved, including Tunde from TV on the Radio who has said it was an incredible experience. Damon Albarn has said of Tinariwen “They were proper rebels, and what a wonderful way to advertise a problem to the world: through music. You don’t have to understand the words to hear something deeper. It’s the mood that says it all.”
Tassili will be released on v2 Records in August 2011.