This debut album by Tinariwen, also known as the Tuareg Rebel Blues Band, can seem the antithesis of Western pop music, even that generated by the engines currently driving the world music markets. Tinariwen are a group of Sahara nomads whose sparse, stark music sounds as weathered as it does enduring. They play what is currently known in the West as “desert blues”, a rugged sounding music propelled by electric guitar and underpinned by repetitive, and cycling rhythms. In December 2000, producers Justin Adams and French band Lo’Jo used a sputtering, gas-powered generator a few hours each evening for several weeks to record Tinariwen in their The Radio Tisdas Sessions, using a Tamashek radio station in Kidal, Mali as the studio. From the onset, it’s nearly impossible to discuss any aspect of this particular music or the musicians who make it without realizing they represent a pulse that continues to beat out through the strictures of the complex and confusing pressures of the region.
A West African nation north of Ivory Coast, Mali celebrated independence from French colonial rule back in 1960 with radio sets everywhere in the country blasting out Boubacar Traoré‘s “Mali Twist” as an exuberant anthem, the soundtrack to a promising newfound sovereignty. Thanks undoubtedly to the more recent world music craze, many people outside of Mali can now name a few Malian musicians (Ali Farke Toure and Toumani Diabate immediately come to mind), and are aware of different regional music styles. Most recognizable in the West at the moment are the thick, circling trance-like grooves as played on electric guitar. Yet coming as this does between some recent releases featuring Western musicians (Ry Cooder’s collaborations with Malian musicians or Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s recent recording under Oxfam’s NGO aegis), this record is immediate culture shock.
It’s not only that little until now has been heard from the musical quarters of the Sahara region (not altogether surprising as the Tamashek, nomads of the Sahara, were increasingly marginalized and excluded from the early nation-building that was taking place all around them in Mali). But just reading through Tinariwen’s official history challenges understanding because the evolution of this particular music seems so inextricably bound with the tumultuous history of the region. Trying to research and come to terms with the roots of this music is like being submerged in somebody else’s lifelong migraine—ethnic rivalries, ethnic cleansings, public executions, prolonged drought, exile, struggles for independence, and the endless suffering caused by armed rebellions and warfare. That, and Tinariwen first formed in 1982 in Colonel Ghadaffi’s rebel camps.
Ibrahim Ag Alhabibe, a central figure with Tinariwen, had witnessed his father’s death at the hands of Malian soldiers. A drought in Mali helped push Ibrahim into southern Libya, where Ghadaffi was making well publicized promises about helping the nationless and disenfranchised Tamashek people in order to swell the ranks of his own army. Ibrahim joined a training camp. In between classes on Islamism, guerilla warfare, and revolution, Ibrahim played music with a few of his fellow travelers though they rarely could find the 30 or so musicians necessary to play in their traditional style. But after being exposed to new music that finally penetrated far into the desert (Bob Marley and Moroccan new wave rebels like Nass El Ghiwane), they set aside their traditional instruments of lutes, flutes, and tindé drums to take up electric guitar and amps. While they continued composing in the traditional manner (the male form of compositional poetry called Assak) and maintained the call-and-response figure, they began creating a new style of music called Tishoumaren, or “guitar” because that instrument centers and shapes the music.
When it became obvious Ghadaffi would not come through with his promises, they broke camp with him. But they became known for vocalizing the political plight of the endangered and exiled nomads. Their music spoke to the Tamashek, appealing for a political awakening of consciousness and became the music of the ishumar, or “unemployed”, meaning a whole generation of young, angry Tamashek exiles.
Tinariwen’s music began taking hold, speaking as it did of both the problems and the hopes: of the repression in Mali, the policy of their people’s expulsion to Algeria, and also of sovereignty and self-determination. With no telephone or postal system to carry information, their songs became messengers. The music carried messages on how to organize for independence and reputedly coded messages as well to help spread plans for action. The political content of Tinariwen’s music alone was sufficient for it to be officially outlawed in both Algeria and Mali. Nevertheless, cassettes of their music were popular in shops in Gao, Bamako, and Timbuktu even though anyone carrying a recording risked bodily harm by the authorities.
Extreme violence finally erupted in the fierce fighting of the mid-‘90s. While their music was a weapon, some Tinariwen also rode to battle and have many legends surrounding them. Kheddou is said to have received 17 bullet wounds after leading several raids, armed with a Kalashnikov and with a guitar slung by a strap across his back. Once, he was soaked in gasoline and nearly immolated, now owing his continued life in part to a defective cigarette lighter.
The group returned to Mali after the cease-fire with the Malian government was signed in 1995, but Tinariwen remained “underground” performing at traditional Tamashek gatherings and youth parties. Tinariwen emerged in 1999 and began playing openly in the Malian capitol of Bamako and their music was soon heard by the outside world. It was in Bamako that they crossed paths with the French troupe, Lo’Jo (whose hometown of Angers, France, is a sister-city to Bamako). Tinariwen has swelled to a size of 10 members (6 guitarists-singers, a percussionist and a three-voice female chorus) that include the finest of the current crop of Tamashek singers and composers. Tinariwen are like heroes to the Tamashek people, popular performers at weddings, baptisms, and all sorts of gatherings. Their music now by all reports includes new lyrical subject matter to further reconciliation, development, and international awareness.
“By all reports” as no lyrics or translations are provided, the listener must rely on mediated histories and biography. Needless to say, without those intermediaries, this writer wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near this close to knowing anything about the group and their music. In terms of sound, Tinariwen’s music seems mellow and laid-back, gentle but determined and not at all fervent or embattled sounding. The first two tracks “Le Chant des Fauves” and “Nar Djenetbouba” are a great paired lead-in, expansive, echoing, melodic and friendly-sounding with a chorus of young voices.
Tinariwen’s style of music is loosely based on traditional Tamashek forms, and incorporates some of the figures of the desert nomads’ harsh one-string violin. Overall, their guitar work is quite delicate, relying on cascading runs with an underlying bass note drone. The traditional cycling rhythms carry much of the rest, but the guitar lines occasionally spike up over occasional strumming (“Mataraden Anexan”). It’s kind of swirling, sparse, “psychedelic” guitar music that shifts and surges underneath the ornate Arabic vocal patterns and group singing. As the record moves on, the feeling surrounding the music seems more somber. Even the thick groove of “Zin es Gourmeden” is slow and dark with fuzzy echo, not a likely cup of tea for any of the average “trance-out” set and not at all the beach party mode most Western listeners seem to prefer for their world music listening experience. It’s important music to know about, though.
“Tin-Essako”, the last of 10 tracks, was recorded live in performance at the first Festival au Desért in 2001, which has quite some significance for the participants. First, the PA system flown in for that festival was hijacked by armed outlaws and was retrieved by Tinariwen guitarist Kheddou after negotiations with the bandits. Also, the Festival in the Desert was begun by Lo’Jo and Justin Adams as a way to showcase the music and culture of the Tamashek people (also that of Mali and West Africa) by stimulating global interest in the southern Sahara region. In the forty or so years since independence, civil war, drought, poverty and under-development have wracked the northern desert parts of Mali. Although the situation is peaceful now the Tamashek face a huge job of reconstruction, education and development.
The Festival in the Desert has been accepted as a natural grafting onto the traditional Tamashek gatherings. But the Festival has also become the most remote musical festival in the world, accessible only by camel or 4x4 and just down the road from Timbuktu. The third edition will take place at Essakane, near Timbuktu, in Mali, West Africa on January 6-8, 2003. If you can’t make it there, you can always listen to The Radio Tisdas Session and ponder vast distances.