The backstory of Tinariwen founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib is so cinematic in scope that it should be the basis for an epic independent film. The Mali native was only 4 when he watched as soldiers executed his father, a Tuareg rebel, during an uprising in the early ’60s.
Later in childhood, Ag Alhabib saw a Western film where a cowboy played a guitar; he was so intrigued he fashioned his own instrument out of a tin can, a stick and a piece of bicycle brake cable.
By the late ’70s, Ag Alhabib had learned many Tuareg Folk melodies and modern Arabic Pop songs during his time in Libyan and Algerian refugee camps, and had obtained an actual acoustic guitar from a local Arab man. He joined forces with other musicians in the Tuareg rebel community to form a band in order to play parties and weddings, which locals dubbed Kel Tinariwen, loosely translated as “The People of the Desert.”
Tinariwen played Moroccan protest music, Algerian Pop Rai and songs by Western artists like Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and Santana. In a Western bio, this would be the basis for an eventual career, but for Ag Alhabib, none of this was designed as a foundation for a future pursuing music.
“In fact, I never imagined making music as a job,” says Ag Alhabib via email; he speaks only French, so his manager translated his answers. “I was always playing for the pleasure and the freedom I could feel with music.”
Similarly, the Western music that Ag Alhabib and his cohorts were exposed to can’t really be looked at as direct influences so much as simply broadening their musical horizons and opening them up to the possibilities of a musical life.
“On a few occasions I heard Western music, but I could not speak about influences as we discovered the guitar intuitively,” he says.”Only a lot of curiosity, of course. I really don’t have models, only some examples or curiosity … on some rare occasions. Most influences come from the desert’s inspiration. Our style comes instinctively, directly from the traditional rhythms and tunes.”
In 1980, Tinariwen’s path crossed with one of the most notorious dictators of the modern age. Muammar Gaddafi offered Tuareg rebels amnesty and military training with the intention of building a Tuareg army to facilitate his expansion into Chad and Niger. But after receiving their training, Ag Alhabib and his friends ultimately joined the Tuareg resistance in Libya.
“Gaddafi never helped us, he used us for what he needed,” Ag Alhabib says.
“He found profit in our situation. As soon as I found another possibility, I left.”
By the mid-’80s, the band was officially known as Tinariwen and had built a studio where they recorded songs that documented Tuareg issues; their reputation grew with the simple offer to record music for free to anyone who supplied them with a blank cassette, which were extensively traded among fans.
In 1989, Ag Alhabib and Tinariwen moved back to Mali, where they found themselves once again involved in civil strife, this time when Tuareg rebels took a stand against the Malian government, making rebel combatants of some of the band’s members.
After the signing of a peace accord in 1991, Tinariwen was finally able to concentrate solely on making music; the band has always been a collective of various rotating players, with Ag Alhabib the only constant. After close to a decade of playing throughout the Sahara region, Tinariwen made a connection with French World Music band Lo’Jo, which exposed them to a large new fan base.
In 2001, Tinariwen headlined their own Festival in the Desert in Mali, which ultimately led to appearances at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD Festival, the Danish Roskilde Festival and South Bank in London. That same year, Tinariwen recorded The Radio Tisdas Sessions, their first album to be released outside of Northern Africa. It was a heady year for the band.
“A big first experience of big world stages,” Ag Alhabib says. “We were very happy and found big motivation to come back!”
Over the past dozen years, Tinariwen has continued to be a major presence on world stages with high profile gigs at Glastonbury and All Tomorrow’s Parties, while maintaining a regular release schedule. Its fifth international album, Tassili, was released in 2011 on Anti-/Epitaph in the U.S., the band has attracted a number of high profile fans, including Brian Eno, Sting, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and U2’s Bono and The Edge. And a representative trio for Tinariwen appeared on The Colbert Report in late 2011 where they were joined by members of TV on the Radio, who have professed a deep admiration for the band.
Tinariwen on The Colbert Report:
As a collective, Tinariwen has gone through a great many changes over the past three decades. Some members play only on the studio recordings and not every member makes the trip on every tour. While some of the band’s new members are just learning how to function in a unit like Tinariwen and have no experience with the social and military turmoil that Ag Alhabib and the older members can claim, they bring an amazing new dynamic to the band.
“They offer something actual and a warranty for future,” Ag Alhabib says. “It was long work for all the group to find how to play on stage, many things we have learned for more than 10 years now. This is our power!”
And it would seem that the younger Tinariwen members might have an opportunity to get a firsthand taste of a Malian power struggle, as the fundamentalist Ansar Dine movement seeks to rid the country of secular music and influence. Guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida was arrested back in January but was subsequently released, a situation that Ag Alhabib has seen far too many times already.
“It’s a big problem at home, actually very difficult to imagine an exit,” Ag Alhabib says. “But we are very happy and we wish the world will look at our situation with good eyes.”
That may well be Ag Alhabib’s way of saying that maybe we should all just let the music do the talking. In that respect, Tinariwen speaks a universally understood language.
Tinariwen are joined onstage by Flea and Josh Klinghoffer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers during their performance at The El Rey in Los Angeles:
TINARIWEN headlines the Friday night opener of the MusicNOW festival at Memorial Hall, which runs through Sunday. More info: musicnowfestival.org.