Tinariwen’s desert-blues — like the stark sun that shines on the region — illuminate the joy and frustration of life on the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali that they call home.
Last year’s album, Imidiwan: Companions, celebrates the band’s love of the Tuareg community, landscape, and women.
“Lulla is a song about the beauty of women in the period from 1984 to 85,” singer-guitarist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni explained through a translator. “Lulla was the name of a woman in the area, whom a lot of people knew ... (The song is an) homage to the beauty of women in that period. It’s a generational thing: girls in that period were really, really good looking.”
Despite their playful nature, Tinariwen face challenges far beyond the flat tires and truck stop coffee endured by most touring bands. Formed in Colonel Ghadaffi’s military camps during the 1980s, the band built a studio, recording songs calling for the freedom of their people. They made analogue cassettes that were copied and passed around the region, building a fan base that has since gone global. In 2009, Imidiwan beat out releases by Wilco and Kings of Leon to win Britain’s prestigious Uncut Music Award.
But the nomadic Tuareg people continue to face problems, including a lack of access to electricity, studio time and instruments. Children build guitars out of water jugs and bicycle brake wires.
“Desert life and musical life are very different. It’s very difficult to have a musical life — we are very limited in resources,” explained Ag Alhousseyni. “Guitars are hard to come by, there’s not a lot of electricity and studios are very rare ... We’re trying to show that people want to make music even without access to a guitar.”
While this context may make Imidiwan’s songs hit harder, it shouldn’t overshadow the music itself, which blends African and American influences through bluesy guitar licks and tonal percussion. Lulla’s stuttering percussion and joyous trills evoke a desert party, while Tahult In features a head-nodding bass groove and Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’ weary lead vocals. The handclaps, drone-like background vocals and twanging sitar-like playing on Kel Tamashek culminate in a raucous singalong that sounds like Arcade Fire, as lit by a Saharan campfire. While the group’s lyrics are in Tamasheq, the central idea seems clear.
“Having people come together in the desert, fuelled by company and making music, (the songs) come naturally,” said Ag Alhousseyni. “It all feels very natural; there’s no stress.”