Tinariwen has existed in some way, shape or form for 40 years now. They came to Western ears about 20 years ago, but it’s really in the past decade or so that they’ve begun to hit the Western mainstream. I saw them last weekend in Montréal, and the Metropolis club was, if not sold out, very close to that. The crowd was an incredible mixture of ethnicities, languages, ages, and everything. Indeed, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, who took turns fronting the band with the legendary founder of Tinariwen, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, expressed his shock and surprise that there would be so many people in Montréal at a Tinariwen gig.
Tinariwen are more of a collective than a band, centered on Alhabib, who founded the band in the Sahara Desert in 1979. The name translates roughly from the Timashek language as ‘Desert Boys.’ The collective includes somewhere around 20 members, some of whom are active, some who are not. At least two members of the collective have died. Currently, there are five touring members, including Alhousseyni and Alhabib. Many of members have been caught up in the violence and instability in the Saharan region, receiving military training in Libya during the Ghadafi era, and fighting in a Toureg rebellion against the Malian government in the early 90s. In 1992, Alhabib and his band dedicated themselves to music full-time.
They did not invent the desert blues, a form of music of the nomadic peoples of the Sahara, made famous first by Ali Farka Touré. But Tinariwen are the best desert blues musicians today. Desert blues has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in recent years, following on the tails of Tinariwen’s success. American blues is a descendant of the desert blues, transported across the Atlantic, of course, during the Slave Trade. In a wonderful bit of irony, most desert blues musicians today, including Tinariwen, play on American-style guitars. And, my god, do Tinariwen play the guitar.
Amadjar is their 9th album and it arises from the Taragalte Festival in Saharan Morocco last October, where Tinariwen played. They then made their way down to Mauritania, travelling by caravan. The songs were written during this journey, as they camped under the stars, playing guitars, deciding on riffs, and letting the songs form. Once they arrived in Mauritania, they met up with their French production team, who arrived in an old camping van they had converted into a mobile studio. Tinariwen set up a big tent, joined by Mauritanian ginger Noura Mint Seymali and her husband and guitarist Jeiche Ould Chigaly, and there they cut the album live, without headphones, without effects.
After the album was finished, a handful of Western musicians did their thing, adding their own skills to the music. The most fruitful of these collaborations is with Bad Seed Warren Ellis, who appears on ‘Tenere Maloulat’ ‘Iklam Dglour,’ and ‘Mhadar Youssuf.’ Cass McCombs also makes contributions to ‘Kel Tanwen’ and ‘Itous Ohar.’
Alhabib is 60 this year, and he has lived a hard life, due to war and dislocation, living in refugee camps and so on. It is in his voice. On the tracks he sings, he is starting to sound tired. I noticed this on their last album, 2017’s Elwan. The odd thing is that live, he sounds anything but tired. He doesn’t exactly come alive, he is a mellow presence on stage, but his gravelly voice is clear and bright live. At any rate, this album is somewhat more mellow than the last few albums.
There is even a bit of West African guitar on the fourth track, ‘Tagkal Tarha,’ which is a simple call and answer blues track driven by the pulsing bass of Eyadou Ag Leche. It was watching them live that I realized just how important Leche is to Tinariwen as it is his pulsating, wandering, and occasionally funky basslines that propel the songs forward, over the acoustic percussion of Said Ag Ayad.
Mellow does not mean bad, I should point out. This is a pulsing album, the call and effect blues vocals, the swirling guitars of Alhabib, Alhousseyni, Alhassane Ag Touhami, and Elaga Ag Hamid, driven by Leche’s bass, and Ayad’s bouncing acoustic percussion. There is more of Alhousseyni’s acoustic guitar than there has been recently, though he can play a vicious electric guitar live, and his songs seem to drive this album more than Alhabib’s.
Tinariwen’s music is always hypnotic, though here, this feels like a gentle suasion, we are transported out of our bodies gently on the wings of this music, and then gently deposited back down when they’re done.
According to the press kit, the album’s lyrics are political, examining the on-going political, humanitarian and environmental problems of their native Mali. The Tuareg are facing continued difficulties due to a large scale collapse of Mali’s infrastructure and public services. In 2012, the Tuareg launched a rebellion against the central government of the country, but this conflict led to the rise of Al-Qaeda and other Islamist forces in the region, who pushed the Tuareg out of their territory. Against this backdrop, Tinariwen use their music to both record their people’s stories, and to continue to remind the world of the plight of the Tuareg and the issues that hound them. And ultimately, this is a song about the multiplicities required to move between the worlds of the nomadic Tuareg, Malian culture, African culture, and the West.
And live, Tinariwen just might be the best band you’ve ever seen.