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World music group

A writer quoted in London's Daily Telegraph described Tinariwen's sound as "like a cross between Fela Kuti and the Velvet Underground." This band of musicians from the Tuareg ethnic group of the northwest African desert took venues in Europe and the United States by storm in the mid-2000s decade, mixing indigenous African rhythms, political lyrics, hypnotic guitar solos, and a sense of melancholy arising from the troubled recent history of the Tuareg people. "We write about the emptiness, the loneliness and solitude, the pain in the heart of missing your camp and your loved ones," Tinariwen founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib told David Hutcheon of the London Sunday Times. "You can have this feeling anywhere. We call it assouf, you call it the blues."

Tinariwen's music is rooted in the experiences of the Tuareg, a group whose ancestors once wielded considerable power in West Africa. Nomadic Tuareg warriors controlled trade routes across the Sahara Desert, repelled European colonizers, and sometimes sold other Africans into slavery. When the countries of West Africa achieved independence around 1960, however, the Tuareg were divided among several countries and found themselves without a homeland. In Mali they were repressed and their Tamashek language banned. They launched a rebellion in 1963, but it was put down by the Malian army. Ag Alhabib's father was killed, and the family was left with only a single cow, which died as they fled north toward Algeria.

It was in those harsh circumstances that Ag Alhabib came of age. He moved north to the Algerian city of Oran on the Mediterranean, working as a carpenter, sending money to his mother in Mali when he could, and hearing the Arab fusion dance music called rai that was flourishing in that city. He and other young men of his generation were called ishumar, or jobless drifters. Ag Alhabib enjoyed singing, and he recalled to Hutcheon, "I built myself a guitar with an oilcan, a stick and some bicycle brake cable." The closest thing to a guitar in the traditional Tuareg culture was a single-stringed fiddle traditionally played by women, but he explained, "This was a new instrument in our culture; it came from somewhere else, so there were no rules about whether or not I could play." He also began to hear Malian musicians who were investigating the links between the improvisational plucked-string instrument patterns of West African music and Western blues and rock.

Empty Place

Ag Alhabib moved to the small southern Algerian city of Tamanrassett, and in 1979 he met Alhassane Ag Touhami and two of his cousins. Ag Alhabib and Ag Touhami formed the nucleus of the band that would become Tinariwen, which at first had a long name in the Tuaregs' Tamashek language. The name was later shortened to Taghreft Tinariwen, meaning roughly "those who rebuild the empty place (or desert)," and finally to Tinariwen (empty place). The political sense of the name came about because Tinariwen became involved with a second Tuareg rebellion against Malian rule.

The rebellion was initially financed by Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, who trained and armed Tuareg fighters in a bid to strengthen his own influence in the region. Tinariwen honed its musical style in Libyan paramilitary camps, and as the Tuareg political MPA (Mouvement Populaire de l'Azawad) organization gained strength, the group became its unofficial musical communications arm. With Tamashek-language publications and radio banned, smuggled Tinariwen cassettes became a key medium of communication among Tuareg fighters (their music remained outlawed in Algeria and Mali even after they became famous). After fighting on a large scale broke out in 1990, Ag Alhabib also undertook direct resistance. Asked by Peter Culshaw of London's Observer whether he waged war "with a Kalashnikov and a Stratocaster strapped across each shoulder," he replied, "That's exactly what happened."

Fighting between the Tuareg and the Malian military came to an end after a 1996 cease fire ceremony that saw thousands of weapons burned in a giant bonfire. After that, the second phase of Tinariwen's career began. Their rise to global renown began when they encountered the French world music group Lo'Jo in the Malian capital of Bamako in 1998. That led to a group of appearances in France in 1999, to a CD, The Radio Tisdas Sessions, in 2000, and then to a slot at the first Festival of the Desert held near Timbuktu, Mali, in 2001. That festival, though held at a remote location, has served as an important meeting point between African and European musicians, and Tinariwen's set caught the attention of Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant. "Listening to Tinariwen is like dropping a bucket into a deep well," Plant said, according to Culshaw. Tinariwen was signed to the World Village Music label, an imprint of the large French label family Harmonia Mundi. Justin Adams, a guitarist in Plant's band, became their producer.

For the Record …

Members include: Ibrahim Ag Alhabib , guitar; Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni , guitar; Alhassane Ag Touhami , guitar; backed by rotating combinations of percussionists and female backing vocalists.

Formed 1979 in Tamanrassett, Algeria; active in Tuareg resistance to Malian rule; met French band Lo'Jo, 1998; toured France, 1999; appeared at the Festival of the Desert, Mali, 2001; signed to World Village label; toured Europe and U.S.; released Aman Iman: Water Is Life, 2007.

Addresses: Record company—World Village Music, 1117 Chestnut St., Burbank, CA 91506. Website—Tinariwen Official Website: http://www.tinariwen.com.

Tinariwen recorded a new album, Amassakoul (Traveler) in 2004 and promoted it with appearances at large outdoor events such as the WOMAD festival in Reading, England, and Denmark's Roskilde festival. In 2005 and 2006 Tinariwen made similar appearances in the United States, at the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance in Trumansburg, New York, and the Festival International in Lafayette, Louisiana. Tinariwen on stage was a large group, with a backup chorus of female singers and a group of percussionists in addition to the three lead guitarists. While other groups luxuriated in individual hotel rooms, Tinariwen preferred to share space. "We prefer a room with a balcony where we can brew up some mint tea and look at the sky," Ag Alhabib told Culshaw. "It's just a different type of nomadic existence for us."

Singing in Tamashek and French, Tinariwen garnered fans from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and guitarist Carlos Santana to ordinary listeners entranced by the band's lengthy jams, based on easy-to-follow pentatonic scales rather than intricate Arabic improvisational modes. Their songs spoke of homesickness, lost loved ones, drought, and fallen fighters, but the sound of the large ensemble was infectious and joyful. Guitarists Ag Alhabib, Ag Touhami, and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni remained relatively constant, but the band was augmented as needed by other musicians and singers from a large group of loosely related individuals, described on the band's website as being like an extended family.

Tinariwen released Aman Iman: Water Is Life in 2007, and the album brought them to new heights of popularity. "Not since [Malian duo] Amadou and Mariam has an African band enjoyed so much crossover publicity," noted Robin Denselow of the London Guardian. Al Ibrahim, with a voluminous Afro hair style that made him somewhat resemble Jimi Hendrix, even looked the part of a rock star. The band, like musicians from other Malian traditions, experimented with outside traditions, including elements of blues and even hip-hop. But Tinariwen, whose members came on stage in turbans and veils (men, not women, wear veils in Tuareg culture), remained true to their roots. "And how have they reacted?" Denselow asked rhetorically in regard to the band's new renown. "By acting as if none of this had happened and they were still back home in the Sahara." Tinariwen offered a link to Africa's past and, at the same time, a glimpse of its future.

Selected discography

Radio Tisdas Sessions, Wayward, 2001.

Amassakoul, World Village, 2004.

Aman Iman: Water Is Life, World Village, 2007.



Daily Telegraph (London, England), February 26, 2004.

Guardian (London England), March 27, 2007, p. 42.

Independent (London England), March 5, 2004, p. 19.

Independent on Sunday (London, England), April 1, 2007, p. 10.

New Internationalist, June 2007, p. 30.

Observer (London, England), February 18, 2007, p. 42.

Sacramento Bee, April 1, 2007.

Sing Out!, Spring 2003, p. 136.

Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), March 25, 2007, p. 6.

Sunday Times (London, England), February 11, 2007, p. 36.


"Biography," Tinariwen Official Website, http://www.tinariwen.com (October 4, 2007).

—James M. Manheim