“Tinariwen” is the plural of the Taureg word for “desert.” Tinariwen has been at the vanguard of Mali’s “Desert Blues” scene for years. (The term “desert blues is suspect because many of the Delta Blues players were working in fingering styles that originated in West Africa.) Originally from Mali, the members of the group have moved nomadically, as is tradition in their society, back and forth from Algeria. In this case however, the reason was more political than tradition. Unrest in Mali is a fact of life, for generations. Tinariwen is as “punk” as you could get. They are the truest spirit of the ideals of “rock and roll rebellion” possible. Why? Rebellion isn’t just in their music. It’s part of their lives. How many musicians putting out albums with worldwide release could be killed in their own country for just playing an instrument? Punk as fuck.
With no irony lost, the core of the group came together in militant rebel camps during the Tuareg rebellions against the Mali government. These were groups who fought against the expansion of Gaddifi’s Libya into Chad and Niger, as its sphere of influence long surpassed other Tuareg territory. In 1990,they staged a full-scale revolt against the government of Mali. Some members of the group were active fighters. All were affected. Even as they began to release music, they carried their Kalashnikovs with their guitars.
After a few charity festival appearances in Europe, the group found a nice niche in the 90’s “world music” market. But they were a genre defying hybrid of West African styles, traditional harmonized singing, and the spirit of defiant rock and roll that endeared them to the western fans of anti-whatever rock music.
These men didn’t just sing of rebellion. Throughout their long career, they have been forced to lay down instruments for weapons. They spread awareness and the message in music, and defend it by force of arms. The primary founders, Ibrahim Ag Al-Habib, Althassane Ag Touhami, and Abdallah Ag Al-Housseyni, with help from a rotating cast of support, regularly deliver the most inventive, modern West African “desert blues.” Fans of Ali Farke Toure and Ebo Taylor should take note. Imagine if their bands were 8,9 people. The rhythms are slower than with a Fela Kuti or King Sunny Ade, but the percussion is undeniably West African. The result is the Grateful Dead with a Tuareg twist.
The music is not separated from its traditonal roots. It sounds whole and new and freshly arranged and syncopated with a progressive hybrid approach in mind. In this respect it reminds me of Krautrock. The plan is there. The players have room to wander. Elwan is the 6th release available in the west. I recommend them all. Since their international breakthrough Ammasokoul, they have been working towards what is realized on Elwan. You will have no idea what kinds of instruments are used to produce some of the sounds. But I guarantee you could afford to buy any of them.
West African music is challenging. It is doubtful most of their audience in the West speaks their native tongue. But what comes across is the urgency. Tinariwen is a propaganda machine. They use the stages of the world to show the beauty that can come from war and suffering. Through this, they show the debts most of the world’s popular styles owe to West Africa. Thank God for the port of New Orleans and the Mississippi river. Unfortunatly, that history is inexorably linked to slavery. The West Africans not only invented the basic elements of the blues guitar styles, but their rhythms and percussive styles can be heard from Jazz, to Rap, to Trip Hop…to electronica.
Elwan is a tipping point. A summit. True rebellion aimed at the West to get its act together. Years of civil war have taught them much. Johnny Rotten may have spit on his audience in an act of “defiance” but I don’t think he ever lived under constant fear of death for doing so. Tinariwen metaphorically “spits” in the face of their enemies, do live under the fear of violent death, and still get on stage and do it. They are a band of middle fingers to the religious zealots and government oppressors who fear music as a portal to free thought. Not so different from those Delta Blues cats their forefathers passed tradition down to. Songs of tragedy. Of oppression. But mostly of survival, perseverance, and resilience.