The world has plenty of violent separatist militias. But few make common cause with an immensely popular band.
The Tuareg do. These nomadic tribesman, related to the Berber, have spent 100 years trying to carve a homeland out of their traditional region, spread over Mali, Algeria, Niger and Libya. Out of their movement has emerged Tinariwen (‘deserts’), a much-loved world music band.
It’s not a stretch to say Tinariwen is the voice of the Tuareg rebellion; the band is inextricably bound to the Tuareg cause. Tinariwen’s founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, lost his father in 1964 — he was killed by the Malian government for aiding a Tuareg rebellion. In 1980, Gaddafi invited the Tuareg to Libya for military training, and Ag Alhabib and his bandmates answered the call. The Tuareg wanted help reclaiming their homeland, and Gaddafi bolstered his reputation as a revolutionary by aiding the Tuaregs and other rebel groups across Africa. By the mid-1980s, the band was composing music to support the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azwad, which called for an independent Tuareg state. And, in 1990, the members of Tinariwen joined a failed Tuareg rebellion against the Malian government. Thousands died.
For a time, the Tuareg allied themselves with Muammar Gaddafi, and they helped the dictator try to suppress the aspirations of his own people. Over the past couple weeks, a Tuareg rebellion has sprouted from the ashes of the Libyan revolution and invaded small villages in Northern Mali. They’re using Gaddafi’s weapons to take on the Malian government in the latest entry of a hundred-year-old struggle for a homeland: the southern edge of the Sahara desert known as the Sahel.
At first blush, it’s hard to sympathize with militants who would side with a despot like Gaddafi. But Tinariwen’s music distills the pain and loneliness of a people who have lost their homeland, traditional way of life and their livelihood. Their lyrics will need translating, but the emotion underlying their cause will not.
The members of Tinariwen have since given up fighting to become international rock stars, but their songs still reflect the same haunted yearning for a desert homeland.
Here’s a documentary from Al Jazeera about the rebel roots of the band:
And here’s their latest video, featuring jamming in the desert with Tunde Adebimpe & Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio: