Saharan bluesmen Tinariwen traded guns for guitars, then set about gaining an army of famous fans

Tinariwen are arguably the hottest act in world music right now. A group of nomadic Tuaregs from the southern Sahara desert in Mali who play a pulsating brand of “desert blues” on electric guitars, their epic journey has already become the stuff of legend. Founded at the end of the 1970s, they wrote songs of the suffering caused by catastrophic droughts, the pain of exile and struggles for political freedom.

In the early ’80s they were lured into Col. Gadaffi-sponsored military training camps in Libya. Their songs became the mouthpiece of the rebellion of the Tuaregs — Muslim tribesmen descended from the Berbers of North Africa who share their own language, Tamasheq.

By 1990, the main members of the group were armed with Kalashnikovs and fighting in Tuareg rebellions in northern Mali and Niger.

In 2001 they helped organize the Festival in the Desert, where they were seen by Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, one of a growing list of rock stars championing their music — and their cause — that includes Carlos Santana, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and U2’s Bono.

According to their manager, Englishman Andy Morgan, who also first saw them at the inaugural Festival in the Desert, the story shouldn’t get in the way of the music.

“Tinariwen are musicians first and foremost. The older members of the band did receive military training in the Libyan camps, and most of them also took part in the rebellion of ’90-’91. But they consider this an episode . . . brief, painful, harrowing . . . but an episode nonetheless. They were musicians before it happened, and they’ve been musicians ever since.

“In the late 1980s, when Mali was still dominated by the military dictatorship of Moussa Traore [the leader who took power in a coup in 1968 and led Mali for 23 years], there seemed to be no other way for the Tuaregs to make themselves heard or respected other than taking up arms and fighting.”

Talking music, their now trademark sound emerged when one of the founders of the group, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, transposed Tuareg melodies to the electric guitar, adding in blues, rock, and Berber and Arabic influences. This was a radical approach to a fairly rigid tradition, but one that didn’t cause much adverse reaction.

“There was no Dylanesque backlash,” says Morgan, referring to the reaction of some Bob Dylan fans when the folk singer went electric in 1965. “Tuareg society and culture was simply too dispersed, and too isolated, for such a ‘unified’ cultural phenomenon as a backlash to occur.

“On the other hand, I think that there was definitely a generation gap between the youth, or the ishumar, as they’re known, and their parents, who had grown up in the ’40s and ’50s and who only knew a very ancient nomadic existence, with clear social standards and hierarchies.”

Tinariwen in some ways symbolize a new way of life for the Tuareg. “They are the first generation of Tuareg to have significant dealings with the modern world,” says Morgan. “They were the first to live in exile, the first to deal with a wage economy, the first to travel far from their ancestral homes, the first to listen to Western rock and pop, the first to use the guitar as their main instrument of choice.”

‘It’s different when people are singing for their life’: rock’s finest on Tinariwen

• Carlos Santana: To share the stage with Tinariwen is a real joy because when I hear them, I hear the beginning of the music of the Mississippi and of Muddy Waters, Jeff Beck, B.B. King . . . this is where it all comes from, they are the originators.

• Bono, U2: It’s very different when people are singing for their life, rather than just to eat. This kind of music is like a breath that I can feel. We’re trying to get inspired, but just a little bit. We don’t want to end up being tourists.

• Thom Yorke: “The Clock” (from Yorke’s solo album “The Eraser”) was totally taken from this weird “Arabian festival in the desert” record that Robert Plant did, where these guitar players from Mali play these amazing riffs. I copied their style and improvised for 10 minutes then randomly recorded bits until I captured something of what they were doing.

• Robert Plant: Listening to Tinariwen is like dropping a bucket into a deep well.

Indeed, it’s difficult to understand Tinariwen without understanding their context in the history of their people. “To take a very specific example, in the old days, before independence, it was considered the height of bad manners for an adult Tuareg male to show his full face in public, unveiled,” says Morgan. “The older members of Tuareg society still live like that. Eyadou, Tinariwen’s bassist, has told me that he has an uncle, living in southern Algeria, whose full face he has never seen. In contrast, Ibrahim, the founder of Tinariwen, refuses to wear the veil. For him it symbolizes the old hierarchies, and old isolation of the Tuareg. It’s what he has fought against.”

Apart from attracting the praise of rock glitterati, Tinariwen have actively been promoted to a mainstream rock audience by their record company Independiente, whose roster includes Travis and Embrace. The Japan Times spoke with the group just as they were about to take to the stage to support The Rolling Stones in front of 65,000 people at Dublin’s Slane Castle.

“I’m really really happy to be here,” says Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. “For me it’s like arriving in a special place after so many years of solitude and separation and suffering in the desert. I’ve always dreamed of this and now it’s happening. It’s a big experience. None of us really knew the music of The Rolling Stones before. But in the last few days I’ve been listening to some of their songs, and I love them. And I now realize that we did listen to the Stones back in the desert in the ’70s and ’80s but we just didn’t know it was them. The problem is that we heard most of our music on bootlegged tapes, with no picture, no track titles, no sleeve notes, nothing. That’s why we’re always a bit uncertain about our Western music, finding it hard to name names. But the Stones are amazing. Their music has a power like the devil. It’s very, very strong.”

The group might not be expecting 65,000 to turn up at their concert in Japan, but their first visit two years ago did leave a lasting impression.

“I was very surprised that the Japanese are such big music fans,” says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, another of the group’s main songwriters. “They seem to love our music, and are great dancers too. That really impressed me. For some reason I had this image of Japanese people as being mainly interested in technology, but not the music itself. It was great for us. Also, the food is bizarre, but the whole protocol of eating is very beautiful. We enjoyed the whole ritual. We found that the Japanese are very kind, very welcoming.”

Ibrahim adds, “I found the Japanese people great, but strange in that they’re in the world, but they’re separate from the rest of the world. It’s really as if you arrive in a parallel world — human, friendly, but completely separate. Tokyo was absolutely the opposite of our home. I saw people walking in Tokyo in a way that I’ve never seen before. These waves of pedestrians . . . it was frightening!”

That tour was not their first contact with Japan. One of their members, Mohammed Ag Itlale, is even nicknamed “Japonais” as he is thought to look Japanese.

“Back in the desert there’s a whole lot of people who look Japanese,” explains Ibrahim. “Japonais is only one of them. Nobody knows why. Maybe the shogun came there a long time ago to do his business!”

Eighty thousand copies sold of their first two albums notwithstanding, it’s still too early to tell if Tinariwen has managed to crossover to a rock audience or not, according to the band’s manager.

“It’s very difficult to judge, mainly because the music industry itself is changing so rapidly. Nowadays, the significance of record sales has changed. They’re no longer the main barometer of success. Sales of ‘Aman Iman’ [their third and latest album, released earlier this year] have so far been superb for an African act, and frankly pretty modest for a rock/pop act,” says Morgan. “But having said that, I’m always so surprised by the extent to which Tinariwen have pervaded many people’s consciousness, especially people who don’t class themselves as ‘world music’ or ‘African music’ fans. I keep getting proof of that. So maybe there’s something happening out there. Time will tell.”

For the group, judging success and their own mission is complex.

“On a personal level, the mission has much to do with earning a living, traveling the world, having opportunities which are so rare back home in the desert,” says Morgan. “But on a much wider community level, Tinariwen see themselves as ambassadors of the desert, the Tuareg. They’re really very proud of their home, and their culture. They want the world to know about it, to understand what they’ve been through and what they were prepared to give up in their lives, for what they believe in. They want us to know how beautiful their homeland is, and how misunderstood.”

Tinariwen play Oct. 12 at Shibuya-Ax, Tokyo (6 p.m.). Tickets are ¥6,500-¥8,000 (tel. [03] 5436-9600). Listen at myspace.com/tinariwen

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.