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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Malian band Tinariwen talk about a musical revolution

Tinariwen’s music is every bit as thrilling as their history, a quixotic, rambling stew of desert blues, driven by tribal rhythms and peppered with snaking, raggedly hypnotic guitar lines as sharp as the desert wind.
Tinariwen, whose fans include Robert Plant. Marie Planeille
Tinariwen, whose fans include Robert Plant. Marie Planeille

You could never make a movie of the Tinariwen story – it’s too dramatic, bloody and fantastical even for Hollywood.

Calling this group of Malian musicians a band would be to sell their heritage mightily short. Tinariwen are a musical dynasty.

They began as a group of nomadic desert tribesmen, rose up against oppression as violent gun-toting revolutionaries, and wound up among world music’s most celebrated success stories, winning a Grammy and attracting celebrity fans ranging from Robert Plant to Radiohead.

The story begins nearly 40 years ago in the refugee camps of Algeria, where exiled Tuareg musicians, lead by founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, started performing traditional desert melodies at weddings and festivals on homemade guitars. Never choosing an official name, they were dubbed in the Tamashek language as Kel Tinariwen, which translates as The People of the Deserts. They recorded for free for anyone who offered a blank cassette.

After receiving military training from Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, the musicians moved back to Mali in 1989, where some members took part in the violent uprisings of the Tuareg rebellion. A decade later, the collective’s Saharan-soaked blend of West African desert blues, Berber tribal folk and Western rock was “discovered” by French world music band Lo’Jo.

Tinariwen were invited to play festivals across the world and recorded a debut album, 2001’s The Radio Tisdas Sessions. Mainstream acclaim was secured by 2009’s Imidiwan: Companions, a collection of spirited electric vamps described by the UK’s Uncut magazine as “the most inspiring and richly rewarding album of the last 12 months”. They toured that album in the capital as part of 2010’s Womad Abu Dhabi. Follow-up Tassili – featuring guest appearances from members of US indie darling TV on the Radio and Wilco – was recorded unplugged under the stars and won a Grammy for Best World Music Album.

Displaced by another Turaeng rebellion in 2012, the band’s LP Emmaar was recorded in a US national park. Tinariwen’s music is every bit as thrilling as their history, a quixotic, rambling stew of desert blues, driven by tribal rhythms and peppered with snaking, raggedly hypnotic guitar lines as sharp as the desert wind.

Tinariwen perform at Warehouse 421 at Mina Zayed on Thursday at 8.30pm. Free entry. For details visit www.warehouse421.ae

rgarratt@thenational.ae