July 6 2011 10:27 AM

Tinariwen have traveled the world—they like the desert best

Photo by Marie Planeille
Wherever they are in the world, Tinariwen stay true to their heritage. On stage, they dress in traditional robes and headscarves as they pluck electric guitars and thump out rhythms on hand drums, singing together in their native language of Tamashek.

Over the past decade, these desert-dwelling nomads have crept ever closer to the mainstream pop charts. They’ve performed on almost every continent, and they’ve been written about countless times, drawing comparisons to Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley. But they still maintain a deep connection to their people, the Tuareg of the Sahara Desert.

Their new album, Tassili, which comes out on Anti- Records in August, is their rootsiest international release yet. Recorded it in southeastern Algeria, it trades their usual electric guitars for acoustic ones and non-amplified percussion.

For a week, they camped out with TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe to write and record the album’s lead single, “Tenere Taqqim Tossam.” Listening to it, you can practically taste the mint tea they shared as they sat around a crackling campfire, surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of craggy earth.

“Acoustic guitars are our natural instruments when we play music with our friends in the desert campfire,” the band—Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, Eyadou Ag Leche and Said Ag Ayad—explains in an email interview, speaking through a translator. “We would like to show to our audience how we perform when we are at home.”

The Sahara is one of the harshest environments in the world. Ranging across the West African nations of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya, it’s drought-prone and crawling with scorpions. But, for decades, the primary foe of the Tuareg people has not been nature but politics—restrictive borderlines, repressive governments and groups looking to exploit the region’s mineral wealth.

“We don’t belong to any country, but the lands where we live are rich in [gas], oil and uranium, so governments and multinational companies are interested in our lands,” they say. “This is only a problem of money and power—the problem of the entire world.”

Tinariwen, which means “Deserts” in Tamashek, have long given voice to the Tuareg peoples’ struggle. Fusing traditional Saharan modes with western blues-rock licks, they’ve developed a distinct brand of desert blues defined by subtle shifts, plaintive melodies and call-and-response vocals. Their music has a universal appeal—even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you’re bound to be entranced by the guitars.

But Tinariwen have also inspired a younger generation of Tuareg guitarists, some of whom are gaining international audiences of their own. You’ll hear some of the best guitar music of 2011 on Agadez, a mesmerizing album by Omara “Bombino” Moctar, a young Tuareg guitarist from Niger.

Tuareg guitar music is closely intertwined with a history of strife—many Tuareg musicians first picked up electric guitars and listened to western blues while living in refugee camps. Tinariwen formed in a military training camp in Libya during the mid-’80s; in the early ’90s, they fought in a Tuareg uprising against the governments of Mali and Niger. They put down their weapons in 1995, when a peace accord was signed, but they still refer to their music in militant terms.

“Music is a weapon, more powerful than a gun,” they say. Still, their poetry is far from a call to arms. On Tassili, as on their other international releases, they strike a reflective tone. In their lyrics, the desert takes on the quality of an all-seeing entity, rendering judgment and exacting vengeance. “Why can’t you see? You are a treasure,” Adebimpe sings over a sprightly groove in “Tenere Taqqim Tossam.” “I’ve seen the world, I love you better.”

Today, the Sahara remains a forbidding place. In 2007, another Tuareg rebellion flared up in Mali and Niger; among the casualties was Adi Mohammed, a guitarist from Niger who played in the band Group Inerane. Islamic radicals have also kidnapped and killed foreign tourists in recent years. Tinariwen said they weren’t able to record Tassili in Mali, their home country, for security reasons.

“Always no stability in Sahara,” they explain. “Very long story!”

But that hasn’t compelled them to relocate to a seemingly more comfortable locale, like Paris or Brussels. The very thought seems preposterous, friends say.

“Tinariwen are almost constantly homesick, mildly perhaps, when they’re away from the desert,” Andy Morgan, a journalist who knows the band well, says in an email. “It’s the only place they feel 100% comfortable.”

No, they’re not leaving the desert. They’re committed to their people, to the fight for peace and stability. Via email, they send out a call for help: “Tuareg people today are in danger. We need to fight to make our people live. We don’t know where to go. We don’t know who can help us??”

In “Imidiwan Win Sahara,” they make a simple plea. “My friends from the Sahara, our freedom is gone,” they sing. “Let’s unite, or else we shall all vanish.”

Tinariwen perform at Belly Up tavern on Tuesday, July 12. tinariwen.com