The desert is a place of hardship and subtle beauty, a stark world that reveals its secrets slowly and carefully. Life in the desert is resilient and strong, and the people are gentle giants among the sand, storms, and sun. For Saharan blues band Tinariwen, the desert is their home, and their hypnotic and electrifying guitar rock reflects the complex realities of their home in northwest Africa.
Tinariwen are Tuareg, descended from nomadic people who have wandered the dunes for millennia, but the music of Tinariwen travels too, reverberating far from the dusty plains of Mali. Their 2011 album Tassili, recorded in a tent in the Algerian desert, won a Grammy award for best world music. Their most recent release, Emmaar, is more of a rootsy affair, delivering stripped-down dirges, effervescent anthems, and above all, a return to simplicity and honesty. With all-star accompaniment including Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, Emmaar is a richly layered listen solidified by atmospheric textures and gritty guitar work.
Mali is the often forgotten brother of the Arab spring, but on Emmaar, Tinariwen tell of the trials of their people and sing of the plight of their families. In the words of their song Toumast Tincha, “The ideals of the people have been sold cheap, my friends. A peace imposed by force is bound to fail, and gives way to hatred.”
Tinariwen’s story is the stuff of legends. Founding member Ibrahim ag Alhabib witnessed his own father’s death at the age of four. Later, after seeing a western film, he built his first guitar from a bicycle wire, a stick and a tin can.
The band was founded in the 1980s in Tuareg camps in Libya, where the nomadic peoples had relocated to find work and a new life away from their Saharan homeland. But the interaction with city life yielded unexpected consequences, including an exposure to western music — most notably the guitar-driven anthems of Jimi Hendrix and American blues, which Tinariwen mixed with their own soulful dirges, performed in the camps by the fire with battery-operated amps. When revolution broke out back in Mali, they left Libya, hung up their guitars and picked up guns to fight for Tuareg independence. When the discord died down, the band returned to music, delivering songs imbued with aching beauty and lonesome poetry.
Their music was bootlegged and traded around the region, earning them a devoted following. Then in the late 1990s they were discovered by western musicians and for the first time were introduced to the wider world. The nomads then travelled afar, performing at festivals and venues around the globe, providing a taste of the aching beauty and lonesome pleasures of the Sahara.