"‘The Radio Tisdas Sessions’ has no bluster in it. The songs sound weathered and deliberate, with somber riffs picked on electric guitars and vocals that sound weary but undaunted."-Jon Pareles, New York Times
Born in a region plagued by exile, war, and drought, Tinariwen (originally Taghreft Tinariwen, or ‘edification of the lands’) became known for vocalizing the political plight of endangered nomads. Their music spoke to the Tuareg or Kel Tamashek, appealing for a political awakening of consciousness.
For a century, the tribes of the southern Sahara searched the barren landscape for every weapon available, be it touba swords or the words of Che and Nasser, to maintain hope in the midst of ethnic cleansing and public executions. With the dawn of the 21st Century, the Kel Tamashek have turned to the global circuit. Musicians are the modern warriors. And lyrics have changed to focus on suffering, love, and hope. A Tinariwen song claims, "If I could sing so that those in London could hear, then the whole world would hear my song."
On November 12, the world gets its chance with Tinariwen’s debut CD, The Radio Tisdas Sessions, on World Village (a Harmonia Mundi imprint). While recording at a Tamashek radio station in Kidal, Mali, producers Justin Adams (whose July release Desert Road is inspired by the Sahara) and French band Lo’Jo had to overcome an unusual obstacle: rationed electricity. They could only record between 7 p.m. and midnight.
Although Tinariwen formed in 1982, they remained underground (Mali and Algeria banned the political lyrics) until the group moved to the Malian capitol of Bamako in 1999. There the ten members drew on a rebel rock sensibility, openly playing their passionate, trance-like Desert Blues. During the first eclipse (and first full moon) of the millennium, Tinariwen performed at Le Festival au Desért, or The Festival in the Desert. Thrown near the ancient ruins of Tamaradant, remote and distant from any visible life, the Festival was an effort to further goals of reconciliation, development, and international awareness.
Reporter Andy Morgan asserts that Tinariwen’s soulful music produced a magical effect on the crowd, causing "the young Touaregs to stamp and dance with abandon in front of the stage. These men were heroes and mentors." The ten band members are indeed the pride of the desert. Experiences in battle have created many legends. Kheddou is said to have received 17 bullet wounds after leading several raids, armed only with a guitar on his back and a Kalashnikov in his hands. Once, he was doused in gasoline, owing his life to a faulty lighter.
After witnessing his father’s murder at the hands of Malian soldiers, a drought forced Ibrahim to join a training camp in southern Lybia, where Ghadaffi made false promises to help the Tamashek cause. In between classes about revolution, Islamism, and guerrilla warfare, Ibrahim smoked cigarettes and played music with Hassan and Intayedan (who has since passed away). Upon hearing the music of Marley, Dylan, Lennon, and the Moroccan new wave for the first time, they discarded traditional instruments like the shepherd flute and tindé drum in favor of the electric guitar, bass, and drums. However, they continued the tradition of Assak, or the traditional male skills of poetic composition, and choral call-and-response. Soon they became musical revolutionaries, creating a new style of music called ‘Tishoumaren’, or simply ‘guitar.’
The songs of Tinariwen are petitions for political and cultural self-determination. They have become a point of identity for Tuareg youth. In a land void of laptops and TVs, cheap cassette recordings spread hope and resolve. Sick of the suffering caused by armed rebellion, the music of bands like Tinariwen is the new weapon of choice.
This musical revolution continues annually at the Festival of the Desert. The third edition will take place at Essakane, near Timbuktu, in Mali, West Africa on January 6-8, 2003. This festival has grafted itself onto the great traditional gatherings of the Tuareg people, which are known as Takubelt in the Kidal region and Témakannit in the Timbuktu area. For centuries these gatherings have provided an invaluable opportunity for the Tuaregs to meet, exchange, and celebrate. They also provide a public stage for various forms of Tuareg song, dance, poetry, camel racing, ritual sword fighting, games, and other age-old cultural pursuits. The musical component of the festival will feature Tuareg artists including Tinariwen and the Tartit Ensemble as well as artists from other parts of Mali, West Africa, and the rest of the world.