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Tinariwen-Bardentreffen 2010.jpg
Tinariwen performing in Nuremberg, 2010
Background information
Origin Azawad, Mali
Genres Tishoumaren, world, blues, folk, rock
Years active 1979–present
Labels Independiente, EMMA Productions, Tribal Union, Wayward Records, Outside Music, World Village Records
Website www.

Tinariwen ( Tamasheq: ⵜⵏⵔⵓⵏ, ⵜⵉⵏⵉⵔⵉ, tinariwén "deserts", plural of ténéré "desert") is a band 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 cease-fire in the 1990s. The group first started to gain a following outside the Sahara region in 2001, with the release of The Radio Tisdas Sessions, and the performances at Festival au Désert in Mali and at the Roskilde festival in Denmark. Their popularity rose internationally with the release of the critically acclaimed Aman Iman in 2007. Tinariwen's biography 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" (, and "dramatic" ( The Independent).

The band released their fifth album Tassili on August 30, 2011. The album later won the Award for Best World Music Album at the 54th Grammy Awards.


Early years

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. As a child he saw a western film in which a cowboy played a guitar. Ag Alhabib built his own guitar out of a tin can, a stick and bicycle brake wire. He started to play old Tuareg and modern Arabic pop tunes. 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 received his first acoustic guitar from a local Arab man. Later, he resided with other Tuareg exiles in Libya and Algeria.

In the late 1970s Ag Alhabib joined with other musicians in the Tuareg rebel community, exploring the radical chaabi protest music of Moroccan groups like Nass El Ghiwane and Jil Jilala; Algerian pop rai; and western rock and pop artists like Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, Dire Straits, Jimi Hendrix, Boney M, and Bob Marley. Ag Alhabib formed a group with Inteyeden Ag Ablil, his brother Liya, Ag Ablil, and Hassan Ag Touhami in Tamanrasset, Algeria to play at parties and weddings. They acquired their first real acoustic guitar in 1979. 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."

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 the best young Tuareg fighters, to further his territorial ambitions in Chad, Niger, and elsewhere. Ag Alhabib and his bandmates answered the call and received nine months of training. They answered a similar call in 1985, this time by leaders of the Tuareg rebel movement in Libya, and met fellow musicians Keddou Ag Ossade, Mohammed Ag Itlale (aka "Japonais"), Sweiloum, Abouhadid, and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni. All sang and played guitar in various permutations. The musicians joined together in a collective (now known as Tinariwen) in order to create songs about the issues facing the Tuareg people, 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.

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. 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 military and devoted themselves to music full-time. 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.

International recognition

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, who traveled to a music festival in Bamako and met two members of the Tinariwen collective. Important was the then manager, Philippe Brix, today manager of Terakaft, a similar group. In 1999 some members of Tinariwen traveled to France and performed with Lo'Jo under the name Azawad. The two groups organized the January 2001 Festival of the Desert in Essaken, Mali with Tinariwen as the headliners, and in close cooperation with the Belgian Sfinks Festival. The festival brought much outside attention to Tinariwen. By the end of 2001, Tinariwen had performed at WOMAD, Roskilde, and the South Bank in London. Their debut CD, The Radio Tisdas Sessions, was recorded by Justin Adams and Jean-Paul Romann at the radio station of the same name (the only Tamashek-speaking station in Kidal, Mali) and released in 2001. It was Tinariwen's first recording to be released outside of northern Africa.

Since 2001 Tinariwen have played over 700 concerts in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia; including festivals such as Glastonbury, Coachella, Roskilde, Paleo, Les Vieilles Charrues, WOMAD, FMM Sines, and Printemps de Bourges. Their 2004 CD Amassakoul ("The Traveller" in Tamashek) and its 2007 follow-up Aman Iman ("Water Is Life" in Tamashek) 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 TV On The Radio. In 2005 Tinariwen received a BBC Award for World Music, and in 2008 they received Germany’s prestigious Praetorius Music Prize.

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 Lamid, and vocalists Wonou Walet Sidati and the Walet Oumar sisters. The band's 2009 album Imidiwan (Tamashek for "Companions") was recorded in a mobile studio by Jean-Paul Romann in the village of Tessalit, Mali.

In 2010, Tinariwen represented Algeria in the opening ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

In July 2011 the collective set out for a new world tour that will include performances at the End of the Road Festival in September and All Tomorrow's Parties in December. They completed 24 performances in the United States of America from September 30 until December 1, 2010. Three members of the group appeared on the The Colbert Report on November 29, 2011 with TV on the Radio to play "Tenere Taqqim Tossam" and "Imidiwan Ma Tenam" from their 2011 album Tassili.

Arrest of member by Ansar Dine

In August 2012, an Ansar Dine spokesman announced: "We do not want Satan's music. In its place will be Quranic verses. Sharia demands this. What God commands must be done."

After large parts of Northern Mali were captured by Ansar Dine, Abdallah Ag Lamida was arrested by the Islamist authority in early January 2013. The other band members managed to evade capture, but Ag Lamida was caught while trying to save his guitars. However, the band soon reported that he was "safe and free".

Musical style

The Tinariwen sound is primarily guitar-driven in the style known as assouf among the Tuareg people. The Tinariwen guitar style has its roots in West African music, specifically that from the "great bend" region along the Niger River, between Timbuktu and Gao. The core elements of Tinariwen's music are traditional Tuareg melodies and rhythms including those played on the shepherd's flute, which is primarily a man's instrument; and those played on a one-string fiddle known as an imzad which is played by women. The primary percussion instrument is the tindé drum which is played by women at festive occasions. Another important traditional influence is the lute known as the teherdent, which is played by the griots of the Gao and Timbuktu regions. In the late 1970s, when the founding members of Tinariwen started playing acoustic guitars, they played a traditional repertoire adapted to the western guitar.

Other regional influences include Berber music from northern Algeria, especially radical Kabyle singers like Ait Menguellet and Ferhat; the pop sounds of electrified rai music of Algeria; pop singers from Algeria like Rabah Driassa; pop groups from Morocco like Nass El Ghiwane and Lemchaheb with their lute and mandol riffs; the classical pop of Egypt; and even Bollywood music. Tinariwen was also influenced by traditional Malian musicians, the most famous of which was Ali Farka Toure. In the early years of the collective's history, the members were also fans of bootlegged albums by western acts that had made their way to the Tuareg people, with favorites including albums by Dire Straits, Santana, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Kenny Rogers and Don Williams.

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 2001.

Band members

Tinariwen has always been 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 most active members of the collective include the following.

The current touring group

Abdallah Ag Alhousseini performing with Tinariwen in Vienna during 2011
  • Ibrahim Ag Alhabib - lead guitar, vocals
  • Hassan Ag Touhami - guitar, vocals
  • Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni - acoustic guitar, vocals
  • Eyadou Ag Leche - bass guitar, acoustic guitar, calabash, vocals, backing vocals
  • Said Ag Ayad - percussion, backing vocals
  • Elaga Ag Hamid - guitar, backing vocals
  • Abdallah Ag Lamida ("Intidao") - guitar, backing vocals
  • Mohammed Ag Tahada - percussion

Current and previous members not currently touring

  • Mohammed Ag Itlale (aka "Japonais") - guitar, vocals
  • Keddou 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 Ag Hamid - vocals
  • Mina Walet Oumar - vocals

Deceased members

  • Inteyeden Ag Ablil (d.1994)
  • Wonou Walet Oumar (d.2005)


  • In 2012 they won Best Group in the Songlines Music Awards for their album Tassili


  • The Radio Tisdas Sessions (2001)
  • Amassakoul (2004)
  • The Soul Rebel of African Desert (2006) CD/DVD (Amassakoul og Jérémie Reichenbachs film, The Guitars of the Touareg Rebellion), Emma Productions
  • Aman Iman (2007)
  • Imidiwan (2009)
  • Tassili (2011) #68 UK
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