In the early 1960s the creation of artificial borders in the trackless wastes of the Sahara desert might have been cause for celebration among the inhabitants of the newly created countries. However, the throwing off of colonial masters in Niger, Mali, Algeria, Morocco and others, also resulted in turmoil for the nomadic people who had called the region home for close to a thousand years. Attempts at fighting to retain their lands resulted in them being forcibly removed from their territories and sent into exile. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib was a young child when he and his extended family were forced to pack up their goods and lives and leave their homes.
Like many others of his generation Alhabib witnessed the death of family members, his grandfather, as they made their way to who knew what. So it's no surprise he and other young Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) men ended up in Libya receiving military training. In the 1980s these expatriates were the nucleus behind the revolts in Mali attempting to reclaim their traditional lands. However they weren't just receiving military training in Libya, they were also being exposed to music from all over the world. It was in the training camps Alhabib first starting learning how to play guitar and met the men he would eventually form the band who would have since become synonymous with the music of the Kel Tamashek, Tinariwen.
Putting down their weapons and picking up musical instruments hasn't stopped the members of Tinariwen from continuing their fight for their people. It's simply meant a change of tactics. Initially their intent was to create songs and music celebrating their culture and their traditional lives. While this might sound innocuous enough, they along with other "guitar bands" were soon being targeted by the same governments they had fought against. In the 1990s many musicians were forced to flee both Niger and Mali because of threats against their lives by the armed forces of the two countries. However this didn't stop Tinariwen from continuing to make music and eventually making their way onto the world's stages to spread their tribal inspired desert blues around the world.
When terrorist groups usurped the Kel Tamashek uprising in Northern Mali - one of the nomadic people's traditional homelands - and imposed their own version of Islam upon the area's population, including banning all music, in early 2013, Tinariwen were once again forced into exile. Which meant their latest release, Emmaar (Deluxe Edition) available in North America on the Anti label, was not recorded in their home desert, but Joshua Tree California. Even there reminders of the troubles at home couldn't have been far from their minds as band member Abdallah Ag Lamida was unable to make the trip having been kidnapped by the terrorists. (He has since been released)
Previously when I've reviewed albums by Tinariwen and other bands from the Sahara region I've received a hard copy which has contained translations of the song's lyrics. The digital download I received this time didn't contain any liner notes, so I'm flying blind when it comes to understanding what the band is saying. While that might be a problem with some other bands, when it comes to Tinariwen, the music is as integral to their message as the lyrics.
What's interesting to note about this album is how they have continued the process of evolving their sound which had begun on their previous release, Tassili, by incorporating new sounds into their mix. The number of guest musicians has increased to include the talents of Fats Kaplan, who plays fiddle on "Imdiwanin Ahi Tifhamamone" and pedal steel on the opening track "Toumast Tincha", current Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer (also on the opening track) percussionist Amar Chaoui on six tracks, guest guitarist Matt Sweeny on the song "Emajer" and poet/musician/ Saul Williams providing a spoken word English language introduction to the album's opening track.
However, for fans of Tinariwen's particular brand of desert blues featuring hypnotic percussion overlaid by the interplay of droning guitars and sparse vocals, there's no need to worry they have done anything as crass as give in to commercial considerations or been so called corrupted by being in America. What they have done is augment their sound with these additional players to give it more depth and a wider range of expression. Listen and watch the video below of "Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim" and you'll hear how little they've strayed from their original roots.
Utilizing these Western musicians is not an attempt to make their sound more accessible to a wider market, this is the band which won the Grammy for best "World Album" in 2012 after all so they don't need to attract a new audience. What it does do is broaden the scope of their musical palate. This allows them to create even more vivid musical pictures of the desert landscape they call home. For while the lyrics are still sparse and sung in Tamashek, after all the songs are for their own people not us, the music evokes the landscape of their homeland. The new musical elements, such as pedal steel guitar and fiddle, which add a certain South Western American feel to some songs, only serve to make the picture more complete.
Tinariwen have been part of the struggle for preserving their people's traditional homelands and culture since the days of armed rebellion in the 1980s. Picking up musical instruments in exchange for the guns of their youth as an attempt to encourage their own people to take pride in their traditions and culture has turned them into cultural ambassadors for the Kel Tamashek on stages around the world. Yet in spite of the international attention, no matter which part of the world they are forced to record their music, or who joins them, their sound remains firmly rooted in the shifting sands of the Sahara desert.
Considering Tinariwen's refusal to to give up in the face of odds most of us would consider insurmountable, is it any wonder the armies of Islam gave their ancestors the name Tuareg - rebels against Islam - when they first invaded North Africa over a thousand years ago? It's this indomitable spirit pervading their music that gives it the presence which makes them one of the most compelling bands playing anywhere. No matter who they choose to accompany them when recording or performing, their music and spirit continue to shine through as an example for the rest of the world. Starting March 14 2014 Tinariwen is beginning a tour of the American South, South West, Mid West and West Coast. If you get the opportunity check them out - you won't regret it.
(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Music of the Sahara: Tinariwen's new album Emmaar)
(Originally posted March 2014)
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.