By Charlie Kimber
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Drumming Up a Desert Storm

This article is over 17 years, 11 months old
Charlie Kimber discovers an unlikely festival sensation.
Issue 288

He went into battle with a Kalashnikov in his hand and an electric guitar strapped to his back.’ The man in question, Keddou ag Ossad, is one of the central figures in the history of a band called Tinariwen. It has become one of the most popular acts at festivals such as Glastonbury and Womad, and their albums are now reaching a global audience.

This is not some easy listening ‘world music’. Their latest album, Amassakoul, still has the power and lyricism that have made them so popular.

Their music is an extraordinary example of how musical traditions from very different parts of the world can combine to produce a sound which is greater than the sum of the parts. Tinariwen produce a sort of Sahara desert blues. Sometimes they sound like the funk of James Brown, at other times they remind you of the great Malian musician Ali Farka Toure, and always there are the roots of the Saharan tradition of call and response and hand-clapping sounds.

The history of Tinariwen is inseparable from the oppression and resistance of people in north Africa. Its members are ‘Tuaregs’ (an imposed colonial name for the Tamashek people), nomadic Berbers who live in the southern Sahara. The Tuaregs spent a hundred years fighting French colonialism and then the leaders of the independent nations who refused to recognise their rights. Brutal raids against Tuaregs in Mali and Niger led many to abandon their countries and flee north to Algeria and Libya. These bitter young men and women became known as the ishumar, after the French word chômeur for an unemployed person.

In the 1960s many ended up in guerrilla training camps. Here they discovered new political traditions (Nasserism, Guevarism, Maoism) but also a wide range of cultural influences. In the midst of learning how to shoot they started a cultural revolution. Ibrahim Ag Alhabibe, a founder of Tinariwen, came to the training camps in the 1980s. As a boy he had seen Malian soldiers murder his father and wanted to battle for freedom.

But he also became part of a movement to create an entirely new sort of Tuareg music. The new sound was to be a symbol of reawakening, a different music for a people who were going to change their condition. It was to be a musical revolt as anthem for a political revolt.

A loose group of people started to make their own instruments and then began playing guitars. Later they listened to Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and the Moroccan Nass El Ghiwane.

Tinariwen, founded around 1982, largely abandoned traditional instruments like the shepherd flute and the lute that were seen as irrelevant and rooted in a time that had passed. Instead they decided to mark their sense of alienation and exile with the electric guitar, the bass and drums.

Tinariwen quickly became musical heroes, celebrated by the ishumar and much wider in the region. Their songs were passed from person to person through tape recordings, sold on the streets or handed from one guerrilla fighter to another in the camps.

Between 1990 and 1994, when the war was at its most bitter, the members of Tinariwen combined making great music with taking part in an armed rebellion. It became a criminal offence in Mali to own a Tinariwen tape. In the mid-1990s a peace treaty was signed between the Tuaregs and the Malian government. Tinariwen had internal rows about whether it was somehow ‘selling out’ to make CDs and go on the world touring circuit. Some members refused and others went on to make the breakthrough album The Radio Tisdas Sessions.

The group helped create the Festival in the Desert, an annual event held near Timbuktu which attracts artists from across the world. Now they spend much time touring, delivering hugely exciting live performances. Tinariwen are a fluid group – sometimes eight people play, sometimes as few as three.

What is never in doubt is that you are listening to music that is rooted in the pain of Saharan oppression but which echoes everywhere.

Independent Records

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