Musicians in the west have been obsessed with what is referred to as “street credibility” for decades; whether its jazz musicians in the 1950s and 1960s walking around with a brazen attitude and a gun to back up their words, or the feuds that occur between rappers to this day, one of the most famous being the feud between 2pac and Biggie. These are all entertaining stories to the public, but while all too real to the individuals, they fain in comparison to the story of Tinariwen.
In 1963 and at the young age of four, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib witnessed his father’s execution by the military in Mali during an uprising. He was subsequently taken by his grandmother and moved to a refugee camp around the city of Tamanrasset in Algeria. Ag Alhabib comes from the Tuareg people, a large Berber ethnic confederation that live in the deserts between southwestern Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. The Tuareg people have their own languages known as Tamasheq.
Image from Grizzly Folk
As a child, Ag Alhabib saw a western film in which a cowboy played a guitar. Mesmerized by the instrument, he built his first guitar out of a tin can, a stick, and a bicycle brake wire. He would not receive his first guitar until 1979, when an Arab man gave him the instrument as a gift.
Image from Los Angeles Times
In the early 1970s, Ag Alhabib began meeting other like minded youth from the Tuareg people in refugee camps and together they began exploring the different genres of music that they were exposed to. From the radical chaabi music of Morocco and Algerian and Egyptian pop to western music like that of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, this musical renaissance undergone by these displaced young men gave them a purpose to focus on.
Initially, the group that was formed with other current members of the band was meant to play at parties and weddings. It was a pastime which the young men enjoyed and saw that it brought joy to the people they played to. The band did not have an official name nor representation; people found out about them through word of mouth. They were eventually referred to as Kel Tinariwen, which translates to “The People of the Deserts” or “The Desert Boys” from Tamasheq. Eventually they would become Tinariwen, which means “deserts” in Tamasheq.
There is a reason Slate Magazine called them “rock n’ roll rebels whose rebellion, for once, wasn’t just metaphorical.” In 1980, Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi put out a decree in which he invited all young Tuareg men to receive military training. The goal behind this move was that Gaddafi wanted to expand his control over lands in Chad and Niger. Ag Alhabib decided to join and they received nine months of military training. In 1985, a similar call was made, this time by Tuareg leaders. During this time, the already established band met more Tuareg youth who came to join the band and add their own influences to the music.
Image from vox
In 1989, the band left Libya and moved to Ag Alhabib’s village in Mali. A year later the Tuareg people of Mali revolted against the government, with most of the band participating in the uprising. After a peace agreement was reached between the government and the Tuareg people, the band members decided to dedicate their lives to music full time.
Initially starting off by playing for different people in the Sahara region, by 2001 they were bolstered into recognition with the release of The Radio Tisdas Sessions (the band’s first album). Since 2001 they have played in festivals such as Glastonbury and Coachella, eventually receiving a Grammy Award in 2011 for their album Tassili for Best World Music Album.
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The band has almost never toured with the same line up twice; they have become a community and Ag Alhabib rarely tours with them now, although he is heavily involved in the recruitment of new talent and most of the work that goes on in Mali.
The group has never shied away from conflict; in August 2012 the militant Islamic group Ansar Dine denounced the presence of popular music in the area and specifically targeted Tinariwen. During a confrontation in January 2013, most of the band members were able to avoid being captured except for Abdallah Ag Lamida, who was caught while he attempted to save his guitars. A few months later he was released and the band gave a statement that he was safe and back with them.
The story of these men is one that should give one pause the next time the news is filled with celebrity feuds or conflicts between musicians. These are men who create music and fight for their right to exist the way they have existed for centuries. May the desert boys continue to thrive; for there is no pursuit more noble than one for freedom and self-expression.