The legend of Tinariwen arrived in the West fully formed on the back of the first Festival in the Desert in 2001. Back then Tinariwen was on hand as a host band for the most isolated music festival in the world. As part of the nomadic Tuareg (or Touareg) tribe that roamed the Sahara Desert interior, they had played parties and other events as well as recorded cassettes that were passed hand-to-hand as a way to unite the people.
Formed in 1985 while training in military camps in Libya, Tinariwen’s members were also once rebel soldiers who fought in the Tuareg Rebellion that rocked Mali and Niger from 1990-96 (though a peace agreement was signed in 1994), resisting the soldiers and the repressive policies of governments far removed from these desert nomads’ daily lives.
The musicians were happy to lay down their machine guns and once again take up music full time. Nonetheless, when the festival P.A. was hijacked en route to the site during a two-day drive across the sand, Tinariwen bandleader Kheddou tracked down the gear, reminding the desert pirates during a two-hour “discussion” that they knew who they were, who their family were, and who their fellow tribesman were. It wasn’t so much a threat as a fact of life and the law of things in the Sahara.
This remarkable story is only enhanced by the fact that Tinariwen creates a compelling brand of guitar- and percussion-based music that sounds like a lost strain of the blues channeled through late-night desert air and campfires. Mali is a country of great guitarists, the internationally famous Ali Farka Toure being just one of many, but the Tuareg sound stands out as the country’s most driving subgenre.
The spiky toned guitar lines from three or four guitarists ebb and flow when paired with clip-clopping handclaps and animal skin drums. Call and response vocals sung in Tamashek are punctuated by high desert wails as themes like love, fading traditions, lost friends, and the mighty desert itself are celebrated.
It’s a sound that captured the imagination of fellow musicians like Carlos Santana and Robert Plant (who have both jammed with Tinariwen), Strange Sensation guitarist Justin Adams (who produced Tinariwen’s first album at a local radio station between blackouts), Elvis Costello, and others who went to the desert festival. Soon the band’s sound reached fans with big ears but not necessarily an abiding interest in world music. Soon Tinariwen hit Europe and the U.S., playing for crowds that could more often be found going to a Radiohead or Thievery Corporation concert.
With all these crossover opportunities already happening it’s no surprise that the band has left the small but influential World Village label, for which it recorded four albums, and moved on to the much bigger Anti- records. Home to alterna-icons Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Wilco, soul legends like Booker T. and Mavis Staples as well as other uncategorizable artists, the label seems to be the perfect vehicle to take the band to an even larger audience when Tassili comes out August 30.
Given the band members’ history, it’s easy to forget that these musicians are artists trying to say something, both about themselves and their people. That they now often travel by plane instead of camels or desert 4x4s means that outside influences (or musicians) inevitably creep into the music, even when it’s a back-to-basics effort like this one.
Here Tinariwen is joined on Tassili by TV on the Radio’s guitarist Kyp Malone and singer Tunde Adebimpe, who hooked up with the band when they each played Coachella in 2009. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band provided horns to some songs and Wilco lead guitarist Nels Cline also contributed in post-production as well.
While past efforts sound like the lost link between the spidery guitar playing of Television and the visceral oomph of John Lee Hooker, the band’s fifth album, Tassili, has a moodier acoustic guitar-based sound. Perhaps turning their back on the concept of desert rockers, this back-to-basics acoustic guitar approach offers a sound more in tune with the band’s surroundings - more than most bands, this band is inspired by its surroundings, often celebrating the ties between the Tuareg people and the desert life - in an isolated but safe part of Algeria. It allowed a way to play by the campfire between the sand and stars with a production team and TV on the Radio guests.
Just as acoustic blues lack none of the visceral impact of its electric counterpart, Tinariwen’s music loses none of its intensity here. The mood is subdued but not particularly mournful. Highlights include the relatively complex and funky “Tenere Taqqim Tossam” with Adebimpe adding tasteful support vocals and the slow and soulful “Walla Illa.” The solo acoustic guitar on “Tameyawt” has the same kinds of flourishes as flamenco without losing any of its desert grit.
Now with the band returning to the U.S., kicking off a month-long tour in Chicago on July 7 to do another victory lap where they play festivals and large clubs, supporting one of their best and most unexpected records yet. Let’s hope they packed their acoustic guitars, because the magic of this album’s spell will likely only grow when seen as well as heard.
The popularity of Tinariwen has also opened the way for other Tuareg bands as well. Here are a few other bands to look for:
Etran Finatawa is a mixed band where half of the members are Tuareg and half are Wodaabe, a smaller nomadic tribe. The two tribes are not historically friendly, so these musicians actually met at the Festival in the Desert.
Tartit is a nine-piece band that met in a refugee camp and formed in 1995; it features a stronger female presence on its two albums.
Peter Gabriel’s Real World label issued an album by Toumast, which is a stripped-down four-piece rock band with an electric bassist and a drummer who plays a modern Western drum set.