The desert is a place of hardship and subtle beauty, a stark world that reveals its secrets slowly and carefully. Life in the desert is resilient and strong, and the people are gentle giants among the sand, storms, and sun. For Saharan blues band Tinariwen, the desert is their home, and their hypnotic and electrifying guitar rock reflects complex realities of their homebase in North West Africa.
Tinariwen are the kings and queens of ‘Assouf’ or guitar poetry from the Sahara Desert. Since the first Festival in the Desert in 2001, which they helped to organise, the band have become one of the most successful and exciting musical exports ever to emerge from west Africa. The founding members spent the 1980s holed-up in Libyan military camps dreaming of dignity and self-determination for their own people, the Kel Tamashek of the southern Sahara, and singing songs for a entire generation of young Touareg. Their rolling yearning grooves and uncompromising messages of simplicity and freedom, distilled over twenty years of struggle, rebellion and exile, have earned them two BBC World Music Award nominations, countless accolades and citations, the attention of high-profile fans such as Robert Plant, Santana, Edge and Thom Yorke, and the enduring respect of their own people. Their latest album ‘Aman Iman’ made the top 10 albums of 2007 in the Observer Music Magazine, Songlines, the Independent, Word Magazine, HMV Choice, fRoots amongst many others.
How do you compress a thirty-year epic into a few pages? Tinariwen, whose back-story has variously been described as “the most compelling of any band” (Songlines), “the most rock’n’roll of them all” (The Irish Times), “hard-bitten” (Slate.com) and “dramatic” (The Independent), are both a dream and a nightmare for any aspiring music writer: a dream because the most superficial ‘headlines’ of their tale – rebellion, guns and guitars, desert nomads, Ghadaffi, the real Saharan blues – are like easy nuggets of gold to thrill-seeking journalists and literary prospectors. And a nightmare, because none of these clichés really do the band justice or even begin to describe who they are, what they feel or the music they play. The following comprises only the chapter headings, the main way markers of the long road the group have travelled from the wild empty places of the southern Sahara desert to the concert stages of the world.
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