The most fascinating aspect in the character of African world music band, Tinariwen, is that they are as much rebels as they are musicians; as much political dissidents and social justice advocates as they are rock n’ roll stars. More Bob Marley than Bono, they came together through war, adversity and asylum—freedom has always been impetus to their work in music. Yet conversely, music is the way the group found route to survival. Out of obscurity, they came as a force, and, after twenty years in the making, only recently have they achieved international recognition.
Though halfway around the world, Tinariwen has made a name for themselves not by fitting into any categorical genre of sonic molding, but by coalescing Eastern music with Western accents, and binding them together with beats that fall in between. Described as Assouf, African blues, Tamashok and Desert Guitar, Tinariwen’s sound is familiar though distant, as the band mires with acoustics native to African regional traditions and those of classic rock artists who’ve inspired them along the way: Led Zeppelin, Elvis Pressley, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley.
They’re an amalgamation of tribal spirits and political innuendos, however their sound and idealism never comes across as forced or striving beyond purely artistic revolt. Artists fight with their craft; people listen when it’s not required, when it’s desirable. Thus, Tinariwen is able to lead a revolution.
The story of Tinariwen finds its roots in the hardship of terror and insurgency, and while their escape has proved a triumph, it is still a tale told over and over again today across the globe. In 1963, Mali had been plagued by colonial upheaval, a victim of French imperialism, which provoked internal dispute. According to Tinarwin’s biography, during a local Touareg uprising, Alhabib Ag Sidi, mason and trader, “was arrested in front of his family in the village of Tessalit, taken to the barracks in Kidal and executed for aiding the rebels. The army then went and destroyed Alhabib’s herd of camels, cattle and goats.” Among the witnesses was Alhabib’s four-year old son, Ibrahim, who fled with his family and their one remaining cow into exile in Algeria. Raised in refugee camps, Ibrahim discovered greater inspiration beyond the walls of a classroom, turning to music and nomadic living as a way to face the rigors of life. “He built his own guitar out of a tin can, a stick and bicycle brake wire. He started to play old Touareg melodies on it, and modern Arabic pop tunes.”
As time passed, Ibrahim picked up a team of poets, musicians, and fellow freedom fighters, and Tinariwen was born. Their mission was and continues to be to write songs documenting their struggle and the struggle of their people.
Tinariwen’s music fashions a unique blend of African folk with American blues. The predominant sound is acoustic guitar, with subtle percussive beats throughout. The track “Imidiwan Ma Tennam” reflects the band’s Moroccan influence in its vocal chants and Arabic guitar riffs. “Lulla” begins like a Clapton jam, and the influence of an artist like Hendrix is apparent in the sharp tinge of electricity found in songs like “Cler Achel.”
Despite the incorporation of multiple origins and inspirations, all the band’s songs are distinctly and foremost African, marking the sentimentality and tribute Tinariwen expresses towards their homeland. They identify with the desert, bare and vast with hidden treasures; their music is one such diamond among the sand.