Electric Desert Refugees

by Nate Seltenrich

31 January 2006

Melding aboriginal rhythms of the Sahara with raw electric blues, Tinariwen spreads the rallying cry of the oppressed Tuareg people.

You are dancing barefoot on warm desert sand at dusk. The seven members of Tinariwen surround you in a broad circle, dressed in long, flowing robes in burnt shades of red and orange and brown. They grasp their glistening electric guitars so casually that of their own will the instruments point to the sky, seeking the North Star amongst millions, or tip toward the ground, detecting a water source far below the surface. Little gig amps sit on the sand, plugged into the earth itself, black audio cables slithering across the surface. Joining you in the circle are Tuareg dancers and singers, men and women, adults and children. As one you offer your voices and hearts and limbs to the heavy night air. A crimson disc creeps below the horizon; a dry breeze addresses the skin. Music distills into the energy of the atmosphere.

“Amassakoul ‘n’ Ténéré” from Amassakoul
“Chatma” from Amassakoul
“Chet Boghassa” from Amassakoul

Tinariwen are Tuareg tribesmen from the edge of the Sahara who play deep, spiritual desert blues—the rhythm of African aboriginal music, the emotional current of Chicago blues, the raw power of early rock ‘n’ roll. In the early 1980s, severe drought drove the nomadic Tuareg into Libyan refugee camps, where they took up arms against the country’s tyrannical military regime. It was here that Tinariwen formed. But local governments banned the rebel group’s political lyrics, and they remained underground until moving to the Malian capital of Bamako in 1999. Today they travel the globe, playing arenas as diverse as England’s massive Glastonbury Festival and the intimate theatres of downtown San Francisco. As one Tinariwen song expresses in Tamashek, the native Tuareg tongue, “If I could sing so that those in London could hear, then the whole world would hear my song”.

Back in northwestern Africa, the Tuareg people remain a displaced ethnic nation of indefinite numbers, residing in a region that includes parts of Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Their given name means “abandoned by God”. In Tuareg terms, the Sahara is many deserts, not one, and Tinariwen is literally “the deserts”. The group’s full name is Taghreft Tinariwen, understood to mean “building up of countries”. The hardships faced by the Tuareg—disease, drought, famine, war, exile, ethnic cleansing, public execution—and their pride of surviving them in solidarity course through Tinariwen’s music.

The style of music Tinariwen play is called Tishoumaren, or “guitar”, because the instrument is so central to the music and the image. It carriers both western and Middle Eastern influences, including Tuareg folk music and the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. It sounds timeless and new at once—something never heard before, yet from the earth. When they formed, Tinariwen were at the forefront of the Tishoumaren movement, the first group to adapt traditional Tuareg music onto electric guitar. Since emerging from asylum they have released two full-length albums, 2001’s The Radio Tisdas Sessions and 2004’s Amassakoul, which features more complex arrangements and a more astute production while sacrificing nothing of the grit and grain of Tinariwen’s identity. Both records are out on the World Village label, from Burbank, California.

Tinariwen’s songs echo across time, resonate in a desert landscape without boundaries. Guitar riffs snake across rhythms of sandy dunes. There are no flashy solos; instead, two or three lead guitars will weave a basket-tight rhythm. Thus the rare freestyle excess, as in the closing to “Chert Boghassa”, echoes with spiritual significance. A steady drone belies the more intricate workings of each song, just as a tight weave appears solid. Vocals take the form of call-and-response chanting or simple lead and chorus interaction. Even unaccompanied, the voices are highly tuneful and perform an integral role in the music. They gallop along to the hypnotic rhythm of the guitars and background percussion.

Some songs are slow and meditative, others rousing. Emotional, rowdy, and dangerous, Amassakoul‘s “Oualahila Ar Tesninam” is rock ‘n’ roll as good as any being made today. The opening of Radio Tisdas‘s “Zin Es Gourmeden” evokes Jimi Hendrix’s playing, hammering on and off, bending strings and sustaining notes, toying with the instrument to see what kinds of sounds it can make. While Hendrix would progress into something more furious, Tinariwen linger at that level throughout the five-minute song. A tension pervades as other licks dart about, a fireworks show with no finale. Later in the record, rhythmic finger picking carriers “Bismillah,” bringing to the forefront an underlying folk influence on the group’s music.

Anyone with an ear to the ground of the modern music must hear Tinariwen’s resistance rumbling across continents. On one wavelength, transcendent blues rock; on another, a rallying cry for oppressed Tuareg youth. The truest sign of Tinariwen’s power is their ability to speak many languages at once—to transmit universal meaning through an artifact of a specific time and place, to transform hardship into pleasure without cheapening either. This is the real building up of countries.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

20 Questions: Amadou & Miriam

// Sound Affects

"For their ninth studio album, acclaimed Malian duo Amadou & Miriam integrate synths into their sound while displaying an overt love of Pink Floyd.

READ the article