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Tinariwen performing in Nuremberg, 2010
Tinariwen performing in Nuremberg, 2010
Background information
OriginTamanrasset, Algeria
Tessalit, Mali
GenresTishoumaren, world, blues, folk, rock
Years active1979–present
LabelsIndependiente, EMMA Productions, Tribal Union, Wayward Records, Outside Music, World Village Records, Anti, Epitaph

Tinariwen (Tamasheq: ⵜⵏⵔⵓⵏ, with vowels ⵜⵉⵏⴰⵔⵉⵡⵉⵏ, pronounced tinariwen "deserts", plural of ténéré "desert"[1]) is a group of Tuareg musicians from the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali. The band was formed in 1979 in Tamanrasset, Algeria, but returned to Mali after a peace accord between 1990 and 1995.[2][3] The group first started to gain a following outside the Sahara region in 2001 with the release of the album The Radio Tisdas Sessions, and with performances at Festival au Désert in Mali[4] and the Roskilde Festival in Denmark.[5]

Their popularity rose internationally with the release of the critically acclaimed album Aman Iman in 2007. NPR calls the group "music's true rebels",[6] AllMusic deems the group's music "a grassroots voice of rebellion",[7] and Slate calls the group "rock 'n' roll rebels whose rebellion, for once, wasn't just metaphorical".[8]


Early years[edit]

Tinariwen was founded by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib who, at age four witnessed the execution of his father, a Tuareg rebel, during a 1963 uprising in Mali.[9] As a child he saw a western film in which a cowboy played a guitar.[10] Ag Alhabib built his own guitar out of a "plastic water can, a stick and some fishing wire", according to future bandmate Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni.[11] Ag Alhabib first lived in Algeria in refugee camps near Bordj Badji Mokhtar and in the deserts around the southern city of Tamanrasset, where he was given a guitar from a local Arab man.[12]

Later, Ag Alhabib resided with other Tuareg exiles in Libya and Algeria. He acquired his first real acoustic guitar in 1979.[13] During this period he formed a band with Alhassane Ag Touhami and brothers Inteyeden Ag Ablil and Liya Ag Ablil to play at parties and weddings.[14] While the group had no official name, people began to call them Kel Tinariwen, which in the Tamashek language translates as "The People of the Deserts" or "The Desert Boys."[15]

In 1980 Libyan ruler Muammar al-Gaddafi put out a decree inviting all young Tuareg men who were living illegally in Libya to receive full military training. Gaddafi dreamed of forming a Saharan regiment, made up of young Tuareg fighters, to further his territorial ambitions in Chad, Niger, and elsewhere.[16] Ag Alhabib and his bandmates answered the call and received nine months of training.[17] During such exercises, the band met additional Tuareg musicians and formed a loosely-organized collective, now known as Tinariwen, to create songs about the issues facing the Tuareg people.[10] They built a makeshift studio and vowed to record music for free for anyone who supplied a blank cassette tape. The resulting homemade cassettes were traded widely throughout the Sahara region.[18]

In 1989 the collective left Libya and moved to Ag Alhabib's home country of Mali, where he returned to his home village of Tessalit for the first time in 26 years.[19] In 1990 the Tuareg people of Mali revolted against the government, with some members of Tinariwen participating as rebel fighters. After a peace agreement known as the Tamanrasset Accords was reached in January 1991, the musicians left the rebel movement and devoted themselves to music full-time.[20] In 1992 some of the members of Tinariwen went to Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire to record a cassette at JBZ studios. They played occasional gigs for far-flung Tuareg communities throughout the Sahara region, gaining word-of-mouth popularity among the Tuareg people.[citation needed]

International recognition (1998–2009)[edit]

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib performing with Tinariwen in Vienna during 2011

In 1998 Tinariwen came to the attention of the French world music ensemble Lo'Jo and their manager Philippe Brix. That group traveled to a music festival in Bamako and met two members of the Tinariwen collective.[21] In 1999, some members of Tinariwen traveled to France and performed with Lo'Jo under the name Azawad.[22] The two groups organized the January 2001 Festival au Désert in Essakane, Mali with Tinariwen as the headliners, and in cooperation with the Belgian Sfinks Festival.[22] Their debut commercial album, The Radio Tisdas Sessions, was recorded by Justin Adams and Jean-Paul Romann at the radio station of the same name in Kidal, Mali (the only Tamashek-speaking station in the region) and released in 2001.[23] It was Tinariwen's first recording to be released outside of northern Africa.

Since 2001 Tinariwen have toured regularly in Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia. Their 2004 album Amassakoul ("The Traveller" in Tamashek)[24] and the 2007 album Aman Iman ("Water Is Life" in Tamashek)[25] were released worldwide and gained the notice of celebrity fans including Carlos Santana, Robert Plant, Bono and the Edge of U2, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Chris Martin of Coldplay, Henry Rollins, Brian Eno, and members of TV On The Radio.[26] In 2005, Tinariwen received a BBC Award for World Music, and in 2008, they received Germany's prestigious Praetorius Music Prize. The band's 2009 album Imidiwan: Companions was recorded in a mobile studio by Jean-Paul Romann in the village of Tessalit, Mali.[27] The band appeared at Glastonbury in 2009.[28][29]

Also since 2001 the Tinariwen collective has added several younger Tuareg musicians who did not live through the military conflicts experienced by the older members but have contributed to the collective's multi-generational evolution. New members include bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, percussionist Said Ag Ayad, guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid, guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida, and vocalists Wonou Walet Sidati and the Walet Oumar sisters.

Further international success (2010–present)[edit]

In 2010 Tinariwen represented Algeria in the opening ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa,[30] and completed a lengthy American tour.[31] The band released their fifth album Tassili on August 30, 2011.[32] Tassili included guest appearances by Nels Cline, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio.[33] Ian Brennan was a producer on the album. The album later won the Award for Best World Music Album at the 54th Grammy Awards.[34] In July 2011, the collective set out for a new world tour that included performances at the End of the Road Festival in September and All Tomorrow's Parties in December.[35] Tinariwen appeared on The Colbert Report on November 29, 2011 with Adebimpe and Malone to play "Tenere Taqqim Tossam" and "Imidiwan Ma Tenam" from Tassili. Group members Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Alhassane Ag Touhami, and Eyadou Ag Leche participated in a translated interview with Colbert.[36]

In early 2012 there was another Tuareg rebellion in Tinariwen's home region of northern Mali, with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) declaring independence and forming the short-lived unrecognized state Azawad. In August 2012, another party in the rebellion, the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine, denounced the presence of popular music in the territory and stated "We do not want Satan's music. In its place will be Quranic verses. Sharia demands this. What God commands must be done."[37] Tinariwen was targeted specifically during this campaign.[38] In a January 2013 confrontation, most band members evaded capture, except Abdallah Ag Lamida who was abducted while trying to save his guitars.[39][40] A few weeks later, Tinariwen reported that Ag Lamida had been released and was "safe and free."[41]

During Ag Lamida's captivity, several other members of Tinariwen fled from the conflict and resettled temporarily in the southwestern United States to record their sixth album, Emmaar, with guests including Josh Klinghoffer, Fats Kaplin, Matt Sweeney, and Saul Williams. Recording took place at Joshua Tree National Park in California, which features a desert environment similar to that of Tinariwen's homeland.[42] Emmaar was released worldwide in February 2014. Tinariwen then embarked on a tour of Europe and North America, but without group leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who decided to remain in Mali to attend to family issues caused by the latest political crisis. Bassist Eyadou Ag Leche assumed the role of musical director, and a new singer/guitarist named Iyad Abderrahmane was recruited to perform Ag Alhabib's parts during the tour.[43] In 2016, the group returned to Joshua Tree National Park to record their seventh album, Elwan, with additional recording in France and Morocco.[44] The album was released in February 2017 and features guest appearances by Matt Sweeney, Kurt Vile, Mark Lanegan, and Alain Johannes.[45] Tinariwen then embarked on an American tour[46] with Dengue Fever as support. The group also toured Europe and Asia in 2017, and toured Australia, New Zealand, and North America in 2018.[47]

Upon returning from the international tour in support of Elwan in 2018, Tinariwen were unable to return to their home area in northern Mali due to ongoing sectarian violence and threats from Islamist militants.[48] The group instead decamped in Morocco and embarked on a multi-month journey through Western Sahara and Mauritania, collaborating with local musicians at several stops along the way and writing songs while camped out in the desert.[49] Their eighth full-length album Amadjar was recorded outdoors with mobile equipment near Nouakchott and was released on September 6, 2019.[50] Amadjar features guest appearances by Noura Mint Seymali, Micah Nelson, Cass McCombs, Stephen O'Malley, Warren Ellis, and Rodolphe Burger.[51]

Musical style and influence[edit]

The Tinariwen sound is primarily guitar-driven in the style known as assouf among the Tuareg people.[52] The Tinariwen guitar style has its roots in West African music[53] and other traditional styles practiced by the Tuareg and Berber peoples,[54][55] and has often been categorized as "desert blues".[56] Tinariwen was also influenced by traditional Malian musicians, most notably Ali Farka Touré,[57] and regional pop singers like Rabah Driassa.[12] While the Tinariwen style is possibly a distant relative of blues music, via West African music, members of Tinariwen claim to have never heard actual American blues music until they began to travel internationally in the early 2000s.[10][58] Tinariwen was also influenced by American and British rock bands whose bootlegged albums had made it to the Sahara region, such as Dire Straits,[59] Santana,[60] Led Zeppelin,[61] Bob Dylan,[62] and Jimi Hendrix.[58]

Tinariwen has been named as a formative influence on a growing Tuareg rock scene, made up of younger musicians who were not rebels like the members of Tinariwen but have experienced their region's recent struggles with poverty and terrorism.[53] The band Imarhan is led by Sadam Iyad Moussa Ben Abderamane, who has collaborated with Tinariwen and is the nephew of longtime Tinariwen bassist Eyadu ag Leche.[53] Kel Assouf[53] and Tamikrest[63] have also gained notice as younger Tuareg rock bands that cite Tinariwen as a fundamental influence.

Band members[edit]

Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni performing with Tinariwen in Vienna during 2011

Tinariwen is a collective of singers, songwriters, and musicians who come together in different combinations to play concerts and to record. This is because of the nomadic lifestyle of the Tuareg people and the difficulties of transportation and communication in the Sahara region. The group has never brought exactly the same line-up on its international tours, though several members tour regularly.[43]

One of the group's founder members, Inteyeden Ag Ablil (brother of guitarist Liya Ag Ablil) died of a virus in the desert in 1994, and singer Wonou Walet Oumar (sister of former lead vocalist Mina Walet Oumar; not directly related to another former member, Wonou Walet Sidati) died of a kidney infection in 2005.

Active touring members[edit]

Non-touring or previous members[edit]

  • Abdallah Ag Lamida ("Intidao") – guitar, backing vocals
  • Mohammed Ag Tahada – percussion
  • Iyad Moussa Abderrahmane – guitar, vocals
  • Inteyeden Ag Ablil (died 1994) – guitar, vocals
  • Mohammed Ag Itlale (aka "Japonais") (died 2021)[64] – guitar, vocals
  • Kedou Ag Ossad – guitar, vocals
  • Liya Ag Ablil – rhythm guitar, vocals
  • Sweiloum – guitar, vocals
  • Foy Foy – guitar, vocals
  • Abouhadid – guitar, vocals
  • Wonou Walet Sidati – vocals
  • Kesa Malet Hamid – vocals
  • Mina Walet Oumar – vocals
  • Wonou Walet Oumar (died 2005) – vocals




Year Album Peak positions Certification


2001 The Radio Tisdas Sessions  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –
2004 Amassakoul  –  – 80  –  –  –  –  –
2007 Aman Iman: Water is Life  –  – 72 84  – 41  –  –
2009 Imidiwan: Companions 68  – 82 81  –  –  –  –
2011 Tassili 33 46 95  – 15  –  – 68
2014 Emmaar 61 115 90  –  –  – 92  –
2017 Elwan 31 68 87
 –  –  – 47  –
2019 Amadjar 74  –  –  –  –  –  –  –


Year Album Film
2006 The Soul Rebel of African Desert Amassakoul & Jérémie Reichenbachs film
The Guitars of the Touareg Rebellion
(CD / DVD)

Contributing artist[edit]


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External links[edit]