They rose from war-torn regions of North Africa nearly three decades ago and formed within Libyan military camps. Now, one Grammy, five albums and hundreds of tours later, the Mali-based group Tinariwen have moved beyond the southern Sahara Desert, from which their music first seeded, toward international fame.
"This is all very encouraging, and the Grammy was a great reward for the Tamashek people," says bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, translated via email. "But we need more attention [from] the world as long as our people still suffer."
Ag Leche's tempered approach to the band's success—Carlos Santana, Bono, Tom Waits and Thom Yorke, among others, have lavished praise—is a reminder that Tinariwen's rise is only one part of a larger narrative: the political instability and war that's left long-lasting repercussions on the nomadic people of the southern Sahara region of Mali. "Our lyrics are the voice of the Tuareg people," says Ag Leche, "as much as the voice of the desert."
On their latest release, Tassili, the desert-rock collective moves away from the bluesy and borderline psychedelic sound of previous albums, with stripped down, rolling rhythms and more subdued, quieter songs. "We wanted to show the way we play music when we are among ourselves, in the desert, around a fire camp," notes Ag Leche. "This is how most of our songs were born."
Recording took place on the Algerian side of the border rather than in Mali because of dangerous political instability; it was safer for the people who joined them on the recording, says Leche. Tassili features guest musicians like Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio. Malone and Adebimpe ended up recording with the band in tents set up in the desert of North Africa, on equipment powered by generators. The collaboration resulted in the song "Tenere Taqqim Tossam," a rhythmic, melancholy love song to the desert ("tenere" is the Tuareg word for desert) with Adebimpe singing in English "Oh, Tenere, jealous treasure . . . / You are the treasure of my soul."
The word that best captures Tinariwen's musical aesthetic is "assuf," says Ag Leche; it's a Tamashek word referring to the spiritual pain and yearning, and the sense of freedom, that can arise from living nomadically in an arid and waterless space.
"This is a feeling full of poetry and freedom," he says. "These facts and feelings are very present in our music and lyrics."
Tinariwen and Burning Spear headline the Higher Vision Festival on Saturday, June 9, at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. $32–$40. 11am-1pm. 415.256.8499.