On the face of it, the members of the band Tinariwen are unlikely rock stars. They hail mainly from northern Mali; their lyrics, sung in Tamashek, the tongue of the Tuaregs, are unintelligible to most of the concert-going world, and they appear on stage swathed in long robes with their faces all but obscured by turbans known as tagelmusts. These, like the one on the Tuareg boy in our latest Line of Beauty, are worn low and have tails that are wound around the face to keep out the desert sand.
That’s all very well in the Sahara, birthplace of Tinariwen (which, in Tamashek, translates as “the desert peoples”). But the three times I’ve seen them—in Jaipur, at Latitude festival in 2014 and last weekend at WOMAD in Wiltshire—it has been raining. This in no way detracted from their performances which, with their blend of electric guitar and melodic humming and chanting, seeped through the skin to lodge itself somewhere deep inside the stomach. “The world sleeps and I count the stars,” they sing in “Assoul”, “I count them and I stoke my burning heart...” Squashed in the middle of the open-sided Siam tent last weekend, I closed my eyes and drifted away from the mud and the rain to a drier, hotter place.
It is hard to ignore the feeling of longing that the music must provoke in the band. For much of the last few decades, Mali has been wracked by violence. Its northern desert is home not only to the Tuareg herdsmen and to the families of the band members, but to militant Islamists who, in August 2012, declared that, “We do not want Satan’s music. In its place will be Koranic verses. Sharia demands this. What God commands must be done.”
Tinariwen, as the best-known Tuareg band, were clearly in their crosshairs. It would not, however, have set them quaking. In the early 1980s, they received full military training in Libya, courtesy of Muammar Qaddafi, who had ambitions to form a Tuareg regiment. It was an experience that fed into their 2003 song “Chatma”: “The fire has been burning for far too long/In our lost slumbers/For the burnt animals and the aged dead/At the gates of Kidal we must assemble/And fight/As strong as you might be/You will burn in your fire.” Fortunately, they realised their talents were better suited to singing than fighting.
But life since the takeover of their home desert has been even more nomadic than normal. The bulk of Tinariwen—minus the guitarist, Abdallah Ag Lamida, who was abducted by the Islamist militia while he was trying to save his guitars—decamped to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California to record their most recent album, “Emmaar”. As the bassist, Eyadou Al Leche, said, “This is the first time we are recording out of Africa, it has to be in a desert. We would like to live in peace in the north of Mali, but this is very difficult. There is no administration, no banks, no food, no gas. Joshua Tree is the high desert of California. We all love the desert; these are places where we feel good to live and to create.”
You don't need to understand the words to Tinariwen’s songs to get this sense of wistfulness. Apart from the guitarist, Touhami Ag Alhassane, who dances stage left and whose infectious grin is clearly visible through the slit in his tagelmust, there wasn’t much smiling from Tinariwen at WOMAD. But that could, of course, have been the fault of the weather.