Tinariwen has a history
that would blow any inspirational blockbuster movie plot right out of the water:
they are a group of musicians from the Malian Touareg rebel group in West Africa.
The Touareg people were a race of free-roaming nomads with a rich culture, until
the French colonized the area and later divided the land into the self-governing
countries of Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania and Chad. Faced with borders
and harsh leaders for the first time, the Touaregs’ rebellion was crushed and remained
so for decades. A new breed of Touareg, called the “Ishumar,” was formed
out of the malcontent young men of the tribes. These men, full of hate and anger,
were easily convinced to join the revolutionary training camps of the Lybian leader.
In those camps, they first heard the music of Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, John Lennon,
and read the work of Che Guevara and Nasser. In the 1980s, the Ishumar discarded
their traditional instruments in favor of the electric guitar, electric bass, and
drums. They began to redefine their traditional music and created something that
spoke more about the politics of their modern world, based on the sounds of their
past. The result is surprisingly mellow, with beautiful guitar tones that evoke
the impression of a calm Jimi Hendrix, the mood of Ben Harper or Jack Johnson, and
a chorus of vocals that sound ethnically powerful without being overbearing. Aside
from the intensity of the music, its simple yet elegant performance (recorded in
huts using electric generators) is powerfully moving. Their music is quite political,
a bittersweet anthem about their hard way of life, songs of hope in a bitter war.
It is said that one of Tinariwen’s founding members, Keddou ag Ossad, went into
battle with his electric guitar strapped to his back.
1990s the rebellion turned into all-out war as the governments turned vigilantes
against the Touareg in an ethnic conflict. Tinariwen’s music spread across the desert
by audio tape, igniting a passion in the Touareg people to keep fighting. By the
mid 90’s the war was finally put to an end by the UN, and the Touaregs discovered
that international exposure through their music was the most effective way to fight
for their rights. Now Tinariwen consists of about ten members, and remains the Ishumar’s
first and most successful band.
Stay tuned next
month for the second part of this feature, to learn about more world fusion music
that you might enjoy!