Kel Tinariwen III/IV

tin5It lasted about six months. The Malian government offered peace terms to the MPA in January 1991 and the Tamanrasset Accords were signed. The rebel movement split into different factions comprising those who were pro or contra the Accords. It was a confusing, desperate and often dispiriting time. Most of Tinariwen decided to leave the military life behind and go back to being musicians.

And that was it…six months of open combat in a story lasting three decades or more. No wonder the group are frustrated and bored by journalists who remain obsessed with the romantic myth of guns and guitars, of rebellion and war. In 1991, Ibrahim and his friends had no doubt that they were musicians first and foremost. They had become soldiers only out of necessity, for a brief and painful period. It was all over in a flicker.

The group headed home to Tessalit and Kidal, or went to seek work in Gao, Mopti and Bamako. Some, like Keddou, accepted posts in the army, the customs service or in education under a UN sponsored programme aimed at reintegrating rebels into civil society. In groups of two, three, four or more, they also began to play gigs openly. Touareg from all over the Sahara were delighted finally to encounter the group who had invented the modern Touareg guitar style, who had been the pied pipers of the rebellion and whose songs defined the story of a whole generation. Their secret was unveiled. But it was a discreet success.

In 1992 some of the members of Tinariwen went to Abidjan in Ivory Coast to record a cassette at the legendary JBZ studios. They played gigs for Touareg communities throughout north and West Africa, but not that often. They were nomads at heart, and the collective was often spread out over thousands of miles. But that was the group’s strength. Just two members could get together in a village with a guitar or two, a djembe or water can for percussion, and sing the songs of Tinariwen. It’s often said that every Touareg from Tamanrasset to Niamey and from Timbuktu to Ghat is a member of Tinariwen, so widely are their songs known and treasured. They are more of a social movement than a desert rock’n’roll band.

Then news came that a French group called Lo’Jo wanted to invite Tinariwen to Europe. This adventurous bunch of musical troubadours lived in Angers, in the Loire valley. Angers was twinned with Bamako. In 1998 Lo’Jo travelled to the Malian capital for a festival of street theatre and music, and there they met Issa Dicko and Foy Foy, two members of the Tinariwen collective, who told them all about the sufferings of the Touareg, the droughts, the rebellion, the exile. Together they came up with the idea of creating a festival based on the traditional annual gatherings of Touareg in each part of the desert, which would hopefully open up the desert regions to cultural exchange, tourism and investment. It was a crazy improbable scheme. In 1999 some of the members of Tinariwen came and did a few gigs in France under the name of AZAWAD. And then in January 2001, the first Festival in the Desert took place in Tin Essako, 60 km east of Kidal. About 1000 locals, and 80 Europeans gathered in that remote beautiful spot. Tinariwen were the stars of the show. A new international phase of their long hard journey was about to begin.

Success came swiftly. By the end of 2001, Tinariwen had performed at WOMAD, Roskilde and the South Bank in London. Their debut CD, ‘The Radio Tisdas Sessions’, recorded by Justin Adams and Jean-Paul Romann in the studios of Kidal’s only Tamashek-speaking radio station, Radio Tisdas, was released on IRL / Wayward in October. Initially lauded by the world music scene and by African music aficionados, Tinariwen’s magic quickly began to work on those with little previous interest in those areas. The guitar licks, the grungy grimy desert sound, the arcane yet effortless rhythms, the striking turbans and robes, the wild rebel iconography, the scintillating exoticism of Kalashnikovs and Stratocasters, the glimpsed power of their poetry, so strange and yet somehow so thrillingly familiar…it all synched in with a general fatigue amongst adventurous pop and rock fans, exasperated with endless young drum-bass-and-two-guitars, indi-rock bands.

Over the past seven years, the group have played over 700 concerts in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia. Their name has graced the bills of most of the world’s premier rock and world music festivals including Glastonbury, Coachella, Roskilde, Paleo, Les Vieilles Charrues, WOMAD and Printemps de Bourges. Their 2004 CD ‘Amassakoul’ (“The Traveller’) and its follow-up in 2007 ‘Aman Iman’ (“Water Is Life”), have established them as one of the most popular and best selling African groups on the planet. Their ever expanding fan base includes a host of stars and legends: Carlos Santana, Robert Plant, Bono and the Edge, Thom Yorke, Chris Martin, Henry Rollins, Brian Eno, TV on the Radio. In 2005 they were awarded a BBC Award for World Music, and in 2008 they received Germany’s prestigious Praetorius Music Prize.

Those are the outward stats of success. Deep inside, Ibrahim, Hassan, Japonais and Abdallah smile gently at their improbable victory against all the odds. When they were just youths sharing a cigarette under the shade of an acacia tree somewhere in the southern Sahara, they always dreamed of travelling and seeing the world. Now they’ve done it. But their biggest source of pride has been in representing their music and their culture to the world and spreading the message that despite all the twisted words and propaganda to the contrary, the desert really is one of the most beautiful, most peaceful and most inspirational places on earth. Ibrahim’s only real regret is that his friend Inteyeden hasn’t been at his side during these payback years. The charismatic co-inventor of modern Touareg guitar rock died in 1994 from a mysterious illness.

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