Tinariwen Brings Desert Blues to Colorado

Tinariwen, an ensemble rock and blues band that hails from the Sahara desert, is coming to Colorado, where it will perform at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. The fest, located at the Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons, runs from August 17 through August 19, and the band will perform from 5 to 6:15 p.m. on the last day.

Tinariwen was founded in 1979 by a collective of musicians led by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who grew up in exile, moving from one refugee camp to the next. He spent time in various north African countries, working different odd jobs. Then in Algeria, he linked up with other "Tuaregs," members of a nomadic ethnic group who live in the Sahara desert, and began playing at weddings and parties.

The group has moved on from part-time gigs and now plays concerts around the world, focusing their lyrics on love, the desert, nostalgia and the struggles that Tuaregs face. The musicians combine electric guitars with flute, traditional West African hand drums, clapping and vocals to produce a hypnotic effect. They sing mainly  in Tamasheq, which comes from the Berber family of languages, but also have songs in Arabic, which members of the group picked up while living in Algeria.

“Tinariwen means a lot for Tuareg people. They sing about the pain of the Tuaregs, but also show the good parts of the culture,” says Ines Ali, a researcher focusing on Tuareg history.

We caught up with Alhousseyni ahead of the Colorado show to talk about the group's music.

Westword: You are traveling through America’s desert, with stops in Las Vegas, New Mexico and Arizona. You recorded Emmaar in the California desert. What vibes do you get when you spend time in the American desert?

Abdallah AG Alhousseyni: It is important to be in an environment where you feel comfortable to make art. The desert is where we belong, where we feel at peace, so it’s a proper context for us to find inspiration and create new music.

How has the Tuareg rebellion of the ’90s influenced your music?

It definitely shaped our music, but, more importantly, our lyrics, which quite often resonate with the difficulties Tuareg people are facing.

The Tuareg people are nomadic. When you tour, you are also nomadic. Does a life on the move suit you well?

For the past three years, we spent almost twelve months on the road. It does suit us well, and touring got easier throughout the years, but sometimes it’s hard not to see our families for such longs periods of time. When we’re home, we live half-nomadic lives where we travel to visit friends and family in different parts of the Sahara, stay with them for a couple weeks or months, then go back to our homes. But when you travel the world for playing, it is a different thing.

Some of your members have spent extensive time in Algeria, Morocco and Libya. How have different Maghrebi genres and artists influenced your style?

Our music is a mix of different music genres, old traditional Tuareg styles and occidental pop music. Obviously traveling this much gave us the opportunity to jam with musicians from other parts of Africa, but also from all over the world.

Mali has undergone a tumultuous last few years. What is the role of music in the midst of internal conflict and violence in your home country?

Music is a way to support the development of our region. We are very lucky to have the opportunity to play in so many countries, make people discover Tuareg culture and promote the peacemaking process. But we are not politicians or warriors, only musicians!

Are you a big fan of any of the other acts performing at the festival?

We don’t know any of them, unfortunately.

When will you release your next album?

Right after this tour, we are going to start recording some new stuff. … We have some exciting new collaborations on the way, but we can’t say more at the moment. Stay tuned.

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