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World Music Features

Tinariwen

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Tinariwen
By Banning Eyre

Published January 7, 2006

The world is full of unlikely stories about talented musicians who emerge from obscurity and hardship to achieve global fame. But few acts rival the tale of northern Mali’s Tinariwen, champions of desert folk-rock, pioneers of modern Tuareg music and one of the most authentic and soulful African groups to reach the world stage in many years. The Tuareg are a collection of nomad desert clans, with Berber (Amazight) roots, who make their home in the ever-expanding, inhospitable vastness of the Sahara desert. Tinariwen’s is a story of war and peace, separation and miraculous reunion, and extraordinary cultural change among a people whose very existence is premised on their resistance to the influences of outsiders.

For the group’s principal composer and spokesman, Alhousseïni Abdoulahi, a.k.a. Abdallah, the story begins in a small, Tuareg encampment near the Malian town of Kidal. Born there in 1968, Abdallah vividly remembers the day in 1982 when an organizer of the incipient Tuareg rebellion against the Malian government visited the camp and played a cassette of songs designed to sensitize and educate people about the coming struggle. This was a time of drought and dictatorship in Mali, and the Tuareg were very much on the outs with the military government of Moussa Traoré. The songs on that cassette were sung in Tamascheck, the local Tuareg language, and played on guitars. It was the first time Abdallah had ever seen or heard a radio or cassette player, and the voices he heard were those of Tinariwen’s founding members, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Alhassane Touhami and Inteyeden.

“This music came via Ibrahim,” said Abdallah in a recent telephone interview from France, where Tinariwen was touring. “He was the first one who played it. In 1976, ’77, he was living on the Algerian border. What he’s told me is that he always wanted to play guitar, electric guitar. One day, he met someone with an acoustic guitar in Tamarasset, and right away he thought that what he was playing on bottles and the like would work on this instrument. So he bought this guitar and started playing.”

Abdallah was intrigued. But for a well-born Tuareg boy to embrace the guitar—a foreign instrument—was no simple matter. The following year, he traveled to Tamarasset, the largest Tuareg town in southern Algeria, to visit his sister, and there he saw Ibrahim and other future members of Tinariwen performing in public. “They were playing guitars,” he recalled, “but at that time I was ashamed to play the guitar because that was not part of our tradition. Many Tuaregs did not understand someone playing the guitar. In the Tuareg tradition, only the griots (entertainers by birth) played something like a guitar, the tehardent (a spike lute).”

But change was in the air for the Tuareg, and for Abdallah. Tamarasset was effectively the Big City—an important crossroads for Tuareg people in Libya, Niger, Algeria and Mali—and there, he began to hear the music that had inspired Ibrahim and his cohorts. “You had cassettes of Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, John Lee Hooker,” Abdallah said. “These tapes had been finding their way into the desert for a long time. W

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