|The members of Tinariwen. (Photo: Thomas Dorn)|
Mali is a land-locked country located in Western Africa – in fact, it’s the eighth-largest country on the continent. Its chief export is gold and, while its official language is French, it is also the host of over forty languages, one of which, Bambara, is generally heard on the streets of the capital, Bamako. Mali’s expansive regional diversity features a portion of the Sahara Desert to the northwest, which is the home, if you can call it that, of the Tuareg people, a partly nomadic group, often dressed in blue, that inhabits most of the Sahara from Niger to Tunisia, including Morocco, Algeria and Burkino Faso. But the Tuareg only account for about 3% of Mali’s population. Out of this tiny populace comes one of the most interesting and popular musical groups, Tinariwen ("deserts”), a nine-piece band featuring traditional Tuareg instruments mashed-up with electric guitars and percussion. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib formed the ensemble in the late seventies while living in exile in Libya. As world music started to spread across the continent and airwaves, to North American and European audiences, Tinariwen started making a strong impression. Their first album was released in 2000, with a brilliant cover featuring a photo of a red sand dune and a tiny figure with his hands in the air. By their third release, Water Is Life (World Village), we finally got a cover featuring the weathered faces of the group dressed in their native clothes. By 2012, following extensive touring away from Mali, the band released their most successful album to date, Tassili, which was recorded in a national park in Algeria without the use of electric guitars, principally to let listeners feel the Tinariwen sound as it originated around campfires and tents. That year it went on to win a Grammy for Best Album in the World Music category.
Following the abduction of their guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida by Islamic extremists in 2014, the band had to leave Africa altogether. (Ag Lamida was held for ten days before escaping. He now leads his own band.) Regrettably, Mali has been in regional conflicts for many years involving the French army, Islamic militants and Tuareg rebels. These often violent conflicts have forced Tinariwen to record in safer places, such as France and the United States, in between concert performances. But out of these stressful situations, the band continues to make music, often called “desert blues” due to its subject matter and sound. That sound is usually described as the “roots” of American blues from nomadic musicians of the Sahara. Music critics and historians cite Tinariwen as one of the best groups in the genre.
beat that draws you in with a kind of hypnotic quality. The new album was recorded in suburban Paris, at the Bivouac le Petit Prince and at a studio in Montreuil. Some tracks were recorded in urban Morocco and as far away as Joshua Tree, California, back in 2014. Now ANTI has released the finished disc, which is a combination of their familiar electric sounds underscored by pleas for peace in their home region. While the music on this album is subtle, the lyrics are not. Particularly on a song called “Nizzagh Ljbal” or “I Live in The Mountains,” where the singer laments, “Out there, the enemy; here only solitude . . . / Fighter, combatant, come this way, come and rediscover your loves, and unity.” This notion is re-enforced on a song called “Ittus” or “Our Goal,” a short, three-line poem in which the singer says, “I ask you, what is our goal? / It is the unity of our nation, and to carry our standard high.” These songs are sung in their native language, Tamasheq, one of the many dialects of the Tuareg people.
By the ninth track, “The Voice of Tamashek Women,” we get the full effect as we hear the emotional call to end the warring sides in Mali, “living in a Sahara devoid of water, desiccated and miserable. / My wish is for it to stop being subservient. / This is a message for those who toil for the revolution.” Each song is translated into English in the liner notes, yet one, “Nannuflay (Fulfilled)," has an English lyric: “I walk . . . / Pursuing memories built on a dune that’s always moving / . . . I’m through sleepwalking, / God be in my heart.”
Listening to music like this can often bring one’s mind a little closer to the desert, but in the end that’s merely a geographic location. For me, it runs deeper. Tinariwen’s music helps us connect with our brothers and sisters in Mali, whose population is 90 percent Muslim, in ways that no executive order can ever deny.
Elwan is currently streaming on NPR First Listen. Tinariwen is performing at Toronto’s Massey Hall on April 12.
John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.