The complex, cyclical patterns of Tinariwen

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The complex, cyclical patterns of Tinariwen

Credit: Andrew Faram
Words by Staff Writer

Tinariwen was founded by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib in 1979, 16 years after he watched his father executed by the Malian government during the Tuareg uprising.

The Tuareg people are a traditionally nomadic population who span across the Sahara, from Libya to Burkina Faso. There are estimated to be more than four million Tuareg people, spread across tens of thousands of square kilometres in one of the harshest environments on earth.

Tinariwen’s music, as symptomatic of their broader culture, is exceptionally diverse and blends the bleakness and enchantment of the desert. Ag Alhabib built his first guitar out of a “plastic water can, a stick and some fishing wire” and before long, he and a fellow group of exiles in Libya formed an unnamed band to play at parties and weddings. Their audiences referred to them as Tinariwen, or “the desert boys”.

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Many members of the band received military training under Muammar al-Gaddafi and actively fought as ‘freedom fighters’ for periods in the proceeding decades. A wider-collective with six permanent members, at The Forum they played as six men, five of which wore tagelmust and litham headclothes.

The little-known lives of the Tuareg people and the band’s history of trauma and violence never seemed to separate the band from the audience. They were rapturously received and played a long, enchanting set – complex, cyclical patterns said to mimic a camel’s gait, textured, anthemic harmonies – cohesively intertwined by electric guitars rich with distortion and reverb.

They play a variety of fascinating instruments, including the tehardent (a type of lute) and imzad (a single-stringed bowed instrument) that re-evaluate the sounds of American blues. They are exceptional musicians, Grammy Award-winners whose strong and beautiful singers have held their own supporting The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, among others.

RISING deserves immense credit for the lineup it’s curated this year, in the midst of an economic downturn that’s hit the festival sector perhaps the hardest. To help bring such an acclaimed, vibrant and essential group to Melbourne for a sold-out (packed to the rafters) performance is exactly the kind of thing these festivals do best.

What’s more, they were perfectly complimented by Chikchika, a Melbourne group comprised of some of the Ethiopian diaspora’s most renowned musicians, including their effervescent Oromo singer, Mulu Baqqalaa. Both acts brought so much overt joy to the audience, it was an education in the wonders of African music.

View the rest of the RISING program here.