x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Touareg band Tinariwen electrifies the Sahara

Tinariwen have won international acclaim for their raw and haunting hymns about dignity, tribal unity, self-awareness and their deep nostalgia for an embattled desert culture.

Tinariwen are the leading musical ambassadors of the Touareg culture of the southern Sahara. Courtesy of Tinariwen
Tinariwen are the leading musical ambassadors of the Touareg culture of the southern Sahara. Courtesy of Tinariwen

A few months ago, Flea, the African music-loving bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, went to see Tinariwen perform at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. Fired up by the music, he accepted an invitation to join the turbaned Touareg rockers up on stage for a couple of numbers, along with fellow Red Hot Chili Pepper Josh Klinghoffer, singer Tunde Adebimpe and his cohort Kyp Malone. Flea was so floored by the fluid, effortlessly funky bass-lines of Tinariwen's Eyadou Ag Leche that he presented Ag Leche with his prized 1960s Fender Precision bass after the show. It was an apt gift. Not only had Eyadou been dreaming of owning such an instrument for years, but in the tradition of the semi-nomadic Touareg of the southern Sahara, giving away your most prized musical instrument is the highest possible mark of respect that one musician can show another.

Thankfully, Tinariwen haven't yet become blasé about the avid attentions of their fan club, even though they've been roaming the globe and dispensing their spiky brand of rolling desert guitar music for over a decade now, in a kind of rock'n'roll reinvention of the nomadic lifestyle of their forebears. They've sold hundreds of thousands of records and picked up numerous awards and accolades, including, most recently, a Grammy nomination for their latest album Tassili. They've performed raw and haunting hymns to their embattled desert culture at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Football World Cup in South Africa and every major rock festival and music venue in four out of the five continents, from Coachella and the Hollywood Bowl in the US to Glastonbury in the UK and Fuji Rock in Japan. If they aren't the most famous African band in the world today, they're certainly in the top five. Not bad for a bunch of desert boys from one of the remotest places on earth.

But this decade of glory on the international stage follows on from 20 years of global obscurity out in the scrublands of north-eastern Mali, the rocky plains of southern Algeria and the towns, cities and military barracks of Libya. Tinariwen were already a Saharan legend when they gave their first concert in the west back in 2001. They had already revolutionised Touareg and Berber music, by picking up electric guitars and transposing the melodies, loping rhythms and poetic sensibility of traditional desert music to this alien instrument. They were already desert icons who had created a corpus of more than 200 songs and poems about dignity, tribal unity, self-awareness, freedom and deep nostalgia for their desert home.

Today, that homeland is arguably in greater danger of total conflagration and anarchy than at any other time for a century. Until a few years ago the Touareg struggle for self-rule against the central governments of Mali and Niger, in which founder members Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and Alhassane Ag Touhami played an active part in the 1980s and early 1990s, was the only real conflict to blight the peace of the area. It was open and hospitable to outsiders. Now it's in lockdown. The fundamentalist Salafist terrorism of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the brutal trafficking of people and drugs across the Sahara, the rampant exploitation of mineral resources, the corruption of local governments and leaders, the heavy-handed intervention of foreign armies and security services, especially those of France and the US, and the huge inflow of small and medium-sized weaponry following the demise of Qaddafi in Libya, are turning this once remote, peaceful wilderness into a globalised hellhole.

So Tinariwen might be recognised throughout the world as icons of African resistance, but the question is, are they still relevant back home? "Many of the younger Touareg prefer Tamikrest now," a Touareg musician recently opined to me, "but Tinariwen are still our elder brothers."

Tamikrest, Groupe Inerane and Bombino are leading examples of a new breed of Touareg guitar band, whose members were raised on camel's milk and the songs of Tinariwen in the 1980s and 1990s, and who are now reinvigorating and extending Tinariwen's signature guitar style. It's a style that the Touareg themselves call either al gitara, guitare or assouf, a Tamashek word meaning nostalgia, heartache, longing, emptiness and loneliness ... in other words, the blues.

This new generation is still fighting those old Touareg battles for political freedom, social justice and cultural recognition that have raged on and off since independence in the 1960s, or, some would even say, since the arrival of the French colonialists in the late 19th century. But they're doing it more brazenly and openly than Tinariwen, with less of that old Touareg reticence and silent dignity and a better grasp of the modern tools of communication, including Facebook. They belong to the same generation as the Touareg students who gathered in the legendary but blighted city of Timbuktu last year to pronounce the birth of the Mouvement Nationale de l'Azawad or MNA, a new rebel organisation that has quickly taken pole position in the Touareg resistance movement of Mali's northern deserts. Azawad is the name given to the oft dreamt of independent Touareg nation.

The original members of Tinariwen are in their 50s. They're revered as originators and precursors, but they don't have the youthful ardour for the fight that burns bright in the heart of the new breed. Founder and leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, aka "Abaraybone", is seen as a kind of unimpeachable Bob Dylan figure, a poet to be emulated, a fountainhead from which the current flood of desert guitar bands draws its inspiration and creative power. "Tinariwen is the foundation," says Ousmane Ag Mossa, lead singer of Tamikrest, who come from the same desert region of the Adagh in the far north-eastern corner of Mali as Tinariwen and who many are tipping as eventual successors to the Tinariwen crown. "It's Tinariwen who created the path. But if younger bands don't come up behind them, Touareg music will eventually die."

Ag Mossa, with a shy smile and frizzed-up afro making him look almost like a youthful carbon copy of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, is an eloquent champion of the Touareg cause, unafraid to talk about politics and the struggle in the sleeve notes of Tamikrest's CDs or in radio and press interviews all over the world. Alhabib, meanwhile, prefers the peace of his garden near the tiny village of Tessalit in northern Mali to the political and military battlegrounds that rage elsewhere in the desert.

There may be some younger Touareg who feel they've lost Tinariwen to the world and that their heroes are more interested in performing in Boston, Barcelona, Budapest and Brisbane than in Agadez, Kidal, Tamanrasset and Ingall. There may be those who feel that the founders of the Touareg guitar style have drifted "upstairs" to become revered figures and elder statesmen rather than guitar-toting braves still manning the cultural barricades. There may be those who fear that too much exposure to the world stage has blunted Tinariwen's rebel edge, diluted its authenticity, commodified their precious gift of music and freedom.

And yet something in Ibrahim Ag Alhabib's sandpaper croak seems unassailable, as true as rock, sand and sky. That uncompromising grit continues to fascinate the wider world, while giving the Touareg a voice with which to face their dark tomorrow.

Andy Morgan is an author and freelance journalist based in Bristol, England. He managed Tinariwen from 2003 to 2009.