Life has always been hard for the nomadic people who live in the deserts of the world. However the advance of civilization and all that accompanies it has seen what used to be a tough but possible existence become virtually impossible. This has been especially true for the Tuareg people of the Northern Sahara. What was once their territory has now been split up among five countries and severely curtailed by the encroachment of cities and mining facilities. From Algeria and Libya in the north, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso in the south, the Tuareg have gradually been forced to give up their traditional nomadic ways and try to adopt to a sedentary existence.
They have not surrendered without a fight though, and their history in post colonial Africa since 1963 has been marked by sporadic uprisings in an attempt to secure rights and maintain a hold on their territories. During the uprisings of the 1980's a group of young Tuareg receiving military training in Libya started performing music together first as a means of entertaining themselves and the other Tuareg in Libya, but then as a way of spreading the message of the rebellion among their scattered peoples. The songs spoke of what they had lost and what they hoped to regain, and were designed to inspire people to resist and fight for their rights.
This was the beginnings of Tinariwen, who have arguably become synonymous with the Tuareg in Europe and North America. Since then the band's founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, and his first band mates have been joined by younger Tuareg musicians eager to learn the style of music he pioneered. Combining traditional tribal rhythms with the sound of the modern electric guitar might at first sound like an odd mix, but you only have to hear Tinariwen once to become a convert to their sound. Even better than listening is seeing, and the recently released Tinariwen: Live In London DVD produced by Independiente and World Village Music combines sixty-eight minutes of concert footage with interviews and documentaries to bring both the band and the people they represent to life.
The concert footage is from the group's performance at The Shepherds Bush Empire in London England in December of 2007. Watching them perform, even via a camera, one can't help but be drawn into the oasis of sound they created on the stage that night. To our eyes the composition of the group might seem odd; a djembe (hand drum), a bass player, up to three people on guitar, and two background vocalists isn't the line-up we've come to expect at a pop music concert. Than again you need to throw away any and all expectations you might have about music when watching and listening to Tinariwen, for they can't be defined by any of our genres.
As the lyrics of all the songs are sung in their native Tamasheq, it's the music the band makes that we focus on. As it turns out, the sound of their voices play a key role in the overall atmosphere of the music whether you can understand them or not. With each song following the pattern of the lone drum setting the pace and establishing each song's rhythm and the bass and rhythm guitars reinforcing what he's started and adding a melody for the vocalists to follow and the lead guitar to counter point, there is a certain amount of similarity to all the songs. However this does not mean they all sound the same, just that they share common elements, much like would happen in any style of music.
Tinariwne's music is deceptive, for initially it merely sounds like they are endlessly repeating the same musical refrain over and over again. Gradually, however, what might have become boring in the hands of others, becomes almost entrancing. For as the music works upon you it also takes hold of you, and becomes more compelling the more you listen to it. There's something about it that draws you deeper and deeper into the sound, until finally you are not only able to feel it affecting you physically, in that it makes you want to tap your feet and move to the rhythm, but emotionally as well.
If you're at all familiar with the Sufi Muslim tradition of the whirling dervishes where the dancers obtain a trance like state through music and movement, than the state that the music Tinariwen manages to induce in its listeners won't be unfamiliar to you as you undergo a similar transformation. Now obviously you won't be ascending to quite the level as dervishes, but the music will "carry" you in a way that pop music just isn't capable of doing. Of course watching them perform only contributes to this sensation, for during the songs individual members of the band allow themselves to be caught up in the music and through their dancing we are drawn even deeper into the music
Aside from the concert footage the DVD also contains an extensive interview with the band's leader and founder, Ibrahim, in which he discusses his life, the contemporary history of the Tuareg, the rebellion he took part in, and what he hopes to accomplish with the band now that armed uprisings are a thing of the past for him.(Although they're not a thing of the past for all Tuareg as oil exploration in Mali has provoked new uprisings because of how it threatens even further depletion of the Tuareg's traditional lands) Its a fascinating, and rather graphic, description of the poverty and hardship faced by his people, and his efforts to keep their culture alive through his music.
Tinariwen Live In London is a wonderful opportunity to see this incredible band in concert. Combining elements of traditional Tuareg music with modern electric guitar, Tinariwen are arguing the case for their people's survival by showing the world their culture is still vital and alive. Where once their lyrics might have inspired their fellows to take up arms, now they recount their history and remind Tuareg listeners of their cultural heritage. While we might not be able to understand the details of the message, the power of their performance is testimony to their strength of spirit and the importance of this band. They are currently touring the United States, check the World Village Music web site for dates and locations, and if this DVD is anything to go by, that's a concert you don't want to miss if at all possible.
(Originally posted March 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.