The band Tinariwen has one of the most unlikely stories in all of pop music. The Malian guitar slingers are all former Toureg rebels who once took up arms against their government. In the 1980s, while living in refugee and military training camps in Algeria and Libya, they came into contact with Western pop music for the first time. Inspired by the music of Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and others, they picked up electric guitars to express their own reality. Eventually, when peace was established in the mid-1990s, the rebels laid down their arms, and Tinariwen traded in their guns for guitars once and for all-becoming an international sensation in the process.
The Toureg, or Tamashek as they prefer to be known, have lived as nomads in the Sahara for millennia. But when independence arrived in their corner of Africa in the early 1960s, the newly created nation states of Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad didn't quite know how to handle this transnational group who showed little respect for borders or national sovereignties. In 1963 Malian Touregs rose in rebellion against harsh new restrictions on their lifestyle, but the Malian government crushed their uprising. In the 1970s, severe drought forced many Toureg to seek refuge on the other side of the Sahara, in Algeria and Libya. Here they became increasingly radicalized (thanks in no small part to the machinations of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi). The rebellion simmered for years, and a whole generation of Toureg was raised in camps without access to the traditional ways. These young men became known as ishumar (or "unemployed") and Tinariwen would become their musical spokesmen.
Tinariwen was born in 1982 in a barracks in a Libyan training camp for Toureg rebels. There the self-taught guitarists Ibrahim Ag Alhabibe, Keddou Ag Ossad and Leyya Ag Ablil discarded such traditional instruments as the teherdent lute in favor of that enduring symbol of youth rebellion, the electric guitar. The band's rejection of the past was a part of its status as ishumar, and the musicians discarded older songs and poems in favor of raw new original compositions that spoke of exile and the refugee life. Tinariwen-or Taghreft Tinariwen as the band was originally called-was inventing an entirely new musical tradition to reflect the reality of the musicians' lives. They named this new music tishoumaren, which translates simply as "guitar."
Tinariwen got its first opportunity to record this hypnotic new style-all layered, scratchy guitars, subtle hand-percussion and mesmerizing chantlike vocals-in 2000. Recorded in Bamako, Mali's capital, four years after the cessation of hostilities between the Toureg and the Malian government, The Radio Tisdas Sessions caused a sensation in Western world music circles with some of the most compelling African rock 'n' roll yet recorded-in a solar-powered studio, no less!
Tinariwen, by now a septet, was soon touring Europe on the strength of this album, playing England's prestigious WOMAD festival in 2001 and becoming a fixture on the festival circuit that summer. That same year, the band also helped organize the Festival in the Desert, a now annual festival held in Essakane, Mali, about 65 kilometers north of Timbuktu, deep in the Sahara desert. The festival has grown every year since then, and attracted adventurers and high-profile guests from around the world-most notably in 2003, when rocker Robert Plant joined Malian pop legends Ali Farka Toure and Oumou Sangare in attending. Several CDs and DVDs of this festival have found their way to market.
In 2004, Tinariwen released its second album, Amassakoul, an even tighter and more focused project than its debut. The CD's guitars were bigger and louder than before and the link between American blues and its ancestral home was never more apparent. Amassakoul garnered Tinariwen a BBC Radio 3 Award for world music in 2005 and enabled them to tour Europe and the U.S. The band's North American debut was well received, and Tinariwen has since toured the U.S. repeatedly, bringing its Saharan guitars home to the birthplace of rock 'n' roll. -Tom Pryor