Rebel Rebel: A nomad rock band and its involvement in Touareg rebellion

Tinariwen. Picture: scannerFM, Flickr

Have you ever heard of this band singing in Tamasheq? They reside in different parts of the Malian desert and actually struggle to bring the band members together for world tours due to the obligations many of them have toward their goat herds. Maybe you have, because Touareg blues band Tinariwen has reached unpredicted levels of fame in the last few years, with a Grammy Award in 2012 highlighting their international success. Today, their fan base has reached a far wider sphere than just their Touareg home, but their struggle for the Touareg cause is almost equally appreciated as their music.

 The band was founded in 1979 by lead vocalist, guitarist and artistic leader Ibrahim Ag Al-Habib, who as a young boy saw a guitar in an old spaghetti-western film and decided to build his own, thus introducing a new instrument to the Toureg music scene. This has remained the basic formula for Tinariwen’s sound until today. On top of a layer of traditional Touareg percussion they incorporate Al-Habib’s guitar work which bears resemblance to a diverse array of sounds, such as the disco groove of Chic’s Nile Rodgers, blues legend Robert Johnson and even the jangly pop landscapes of the Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr, even though their biggest sources of inspiration outside of the Touareg music scene is probably West African pop-music and American blues-rock.

The Tinariwen band-members all belong to the Touareg community, which live their nomadic life-styles in Northern and Western Africa. With ethnic borders not being considered as many African states reached independence, this negatively affected the Touareg. Post-indepence, fractions within the Malian Touareg community took to arms and rebelled against the country’s government, which had been installed after the French departure, in an attempt to create a sovereign Touareg state. The Malian regime struck down hard on the rebels executing many of their supporters, including Al-Habib’s father, which he mentions in the song “Soixante Trois”.

In the eighties, Libya’s dictator Muammar Qaddafi invited thousands of Touaregs for military training in Libya, and the founding members of Tinariwen were among those who answered. While in military training, they started recording cassettes that would later help them create a Touareg fan base. In the early nineties, another Touareg revolt in Mali was unleashed and many of the fighting rebels had received training in Qaddafi’s Libya. Once again, the Tinariwen band members joined the fight. Between battles, they would entertain their brigade by performing their songs which further increased their popularity within the Touareg community.

When the Malian government signed a peace treaty with the rebels in 1992 Tinariwen’s fighting came to an end, and their lyrical focus shifted from rebellion-fuelling ideas to calls for unity within the Touareg community, which was being torn apart by factionalism partly due to the divide and rule tactics applied by the Malian government. Perhaps their most stellar song, Matadjem Yinmixan (Why this hatred between you?) is a good example of this new direction, and the band today mostly write lyrics portraying the Touareg life-style and the pride of belonging to the Touareg community. However, a few years ago the band’s back-up vocalist, Abdallah Ag Al-Housseini, did state that Tinariwen will remain military artists, “ready to take up arms at any time” to defend the Touareg cause. There seem to be differences within the band on this issue, as band member Eyadou Ag Leche in an interview with Libération explained that the band has left their military past behind them and is now fighting for the conservation of Touareg culture, noting that the Touareg people are pacifist but that they will not accept anyone “stepping on their heads”.

Leche was interviewed two days before the latest Touareg rebellion in 2012, in which Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré was ousted in a coup d’état on March 22nd by the Mouvement National pour la Libération d’Azawad (MNLA). The difference this time was that the coup was somewhat hijacked by Islamists, and al-Qaeda’s black flag was supposedly seen in northern Mali during the rebellion. Tinariwen did not participate in the revolt, but were dragged in as they became targeted by militant Islamist group Ansar Dine, resulting in the kidnapping of back-up vocalist Abdallah Ag Lamida who allegedly got captured trying to collect his guitars as the band made their escape, knowing that they had been targeted by Ansar Dine because of their “satanic music”. Two members, bandleader Al-Habib and guitarist Elaga Al-Hamid had to flee into refugee camps in Algeria, and were temporarily unable to join Tinariwen’s ongoing world tour. Al-Lamida was eventually freed, and after Malian and French forces pushed back the rebels both Al-Habib and Al-Hamid were able to leave the refugee camp.

The band is now able to tour again, even if at least one or two members are often absent, due to either a goat herd that needs attention, or just the fact that it can be hard finding a nomad musician in the biggest desert in the world.

Tinariwen means “deserts” in the Tamasheq language. The desert may be Tinariwen’s home, but their music has had an even wider outreach than the Sahara, bringing attention to a life-style that is under threat in today’s urbanized world.


Six songs by Tinariwen:

Matadjem Yinmixan
Imazaghen N Adagh
Imidwan Winakalin
Walla Illa
Imidiwan Ma Tennam

If you speak Swedish or French (or maybe even Tamasheq), this documentary/liveshow recorded in Gothenburg may be a rewarding Tinariwen-experience. It was however shot in the summer of 2012, thus missing bandleader Ibrahim Al-Habib as he was stuck in an Algerian refugee camp in the aftermath of the coup d’état in Mali.

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