They met in the Tuareg rebel camps in Libya, where the Saharan ethnic group relocated following uprisings in Mali. Here, these displaced musicians found inspiration in traditional Tuareg music and poetry – the melodies used by West African poets known as griots and the softly hypnotic rhythm of the tindé drum.
“And I suppose that when Tinariwen started, a big inspiration was also our situation at that time,” says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, “the exile we were living and the feelings of homesickness, anger, and loss that it generated.”
With songs written in a mixture of Tamashek and French, the band has been spreading stories of struggle and messages of hope for over 25 years. As the situation in the Saharan area settled, the subject matter of Tinariwen’s music shifted.
“Many of the songs that we are writing now are about more recent subjects,” says Alhousseyni, “about our love for the desert, our pride in who we are, the need for the Tuareg to unite, to educate their children, to develop themselves and their homeland.”
On the band’s latest album, Aman Iman, Tinariwen has continued to explore its fusion of traditional Tuareg and other forms of “desert music” with Western blues and country influences. For this effort, the band worked with producer Justin Adams and sound engineer Ben Findlay, the latter of whom has worked with Peter Gabriel and Baaba Maal. Alhousseyni notes that the band’s production team helped to create a large sound “without making it too clean and polished.”
“We wanted to keep the desert sand in our sound, because that’s what makes it so particular,” he adds. “It’s a difficult balance to achieve.”
Tinariwen’s music helped bring together the Tuareg exiles during their period of displacement. Without newspapers or radio programs produced in their native tongue, the Tuaregs had little means to learn or understand about the situations arising around them. As troubadours, Tinariwen helped dispense information to the masses.
“Since we’ve come out of the desert and into the wider role, our music is still doing the same job,” says Alhousseyni, “except that our audience now is not only our fellow Tuareg, but anyone the world over who is curious about the desert and about the Tuareg.”
He continues, “And, in the end, I suppose that education and awareness foster peace, because once people are really aware of who they are and what their situation is, it will give them the impulse to improve their lives. Of course, this can initially lead to conflict, as it did in our case, but the final result must always be peace, because that’s the only way in which humans can live a fruitful life.”
Tinariwen plays Temple Bar on November 3.