Tinariwen has one of the most unlikely stories in all of pop music. The Malian guitarists are all former Toureg rebels who once took up arms against their government. In the 1980s, while living in refugee and military training camps in Algeria and Libya, they came into contact with Western pop music for the first time.
Inspired by the music of Santana, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and others, they picked up electric guitars to express their own reality. Eventually, when peace was established in the mid-1990s, the rebels laid down their arms, and Tinariwen traded in their guns for guitars once and for all, becoming an international sensation in the process.
The Toureg, or Tamashek as they prefer to be known, have lived as nomads in the Sahara for millennia. But when independence arrived in their corner of Africa in the early 1960s, the newly created nation states of Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad didn’t quite know how to handle this transnational group who showed little respect for national borders.
In 1963 Malian Touregs rose in rebellion against harsh new restrictions on their lifestyle, but the Malian government crushed their uprising. In the 1970s, severe drought forced many Toureg to seek refuge on the other side of the Sahara, in Algeria and Libya. Here they became increasingly radicalized. The rebellion simmered for years, and a whole generation of Toureg was raised in camps without access to the traditional ways. These young men became known as ishumar (or “unemployed”) and Tinariwen would become their musical spokesmen. In fact, all the current members of Tinariwen were born in nomad camps in the far northeast of Mali.
Their stark musical style, with its bony, whiplash guitar, its rolling, loping momentum, skeletal handclaps and cracked sandpaper vocals, its lyrical explorations of longing, homesickness, brooding anger mixed with melancholia, their feelings about their own stateless disenfranchised people, is what endears them to fans around the world.
Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the bands leader and one of the few undisputed leaders of Tuareg guitar music, was a young, jobless, Tuareg migrant scratching a living in Algeria and Libya in the 80s. His family had been hounded out of his homeland in northeastern Mali in the early 1960s. His father, a mason, was arrested in 1964 for aiding a Tuareg rebellion against the newly independent government of Mali and executed by firing squad.
Ibrahim carried the anger on his shoulders throughout his childhood and adolescence. In 1979, he picked up a guitar and adapted traditional Tuareg rhythms and melodies, mixing them with the pop sounds of North Africa and beyond; Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Dire Straits were seminal influences to this alien instrument.