From Tinariwen, a desert storm of electrified roots music

Marie Planeille

Since ancient times, the Tuareg people of northern Africa have been using indigo dye for their clothing. Because the dye rubbed off, they’ve been called the Blue Men of the Sahara.

There’s another reason we might call Tinariwen — the most widely recognized Tuareg cultural export of recent years — a very different kind of Blue Man Group: The members of the band play a yearning, open-ended style of music that’s often described, and with good reason, as “desert blues.”

Tinariwen, who return to Boston on Friday to play the Royale, have become ambassadors for a culture few Westerners know much of anything about. The Tuareg are one of the last nomadic peoples on Earth, having driven their livestock across a vast range of the Sahara, from southwestern Libya to Mali and Algeria. They have a deeply ingrained history of music and poetry, one that meets modern electricity in the group’s seven full-length albums, beginning with 2001’s “The Radio Tisdas Sesions.”


“Our nomadism is pastoral, and in our ancestral tradition we practice the music,” explains Eyadou Ag Leche, a singer and bassist in the group’s rotating lineup, in an e-mail translated by the group’s tour manager. “Our style comes directly from the inspiration of our mode of life.”

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The band has traveled extensively in Europe and America, especially since signing with Anti- Records — home of an eclectic roster including Mavis Staples, Tom Waits, and the late Merle Haggard — for 2011’s “Tassili,” which won a Grammy Award for best world music album. But the musicians still don’t speak much English; their songs are sung in their native Tamashek language. (The name Tinariwen is the plural of “tenere,” or desert.)

They’re currently touring behind “Elwan,” their third album for their American label. The title means “elephants.” For the musicians, it’s a metaphor for the powerful forces that have kept their Sahara in a near-perpetual state of strife.

The name “symbolizes the big corporations,” says Ag Leche, “radicalist businessmen who have responsibility [for] our political problem in the Sahara. Our land is like after some elephants crossed our gardens!”

The band actually started playing together years before it earned international recognition. As a young boy, founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib was witness to his father’s execution as a Tuareg rebel in Mali, in 1963. According to an oft-told tale, the boy was inspired to become a musician by the 1967 film “The Fastest Guitar Alive,” in which the singer Roy Orbison played a cowboy with a guitar that could shoot bullets.


As a young man Ag Alhabib began making music with fellow members of the Tuareg rebel community. They synthesized traditional Tuareg music with other styles they liked, ethnic styles from Morocco and Algeria, and classic rock they heard on bootleg tapes — Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Dire Straits. In the 1980s, Ag Alhabib and his fellow musicians took up an offer to join Moammar Gadhafi’s military training program. Some of the early members of Tinariwen took part in a 1990 Tuareg revolt against the Malian government before settling into a full-time role as musicians.

In another e-mail, Ag Alhabib says his romanticizing of the rebel spirit was a part of his youth that has long since given way to a passion for peace. No longer does he dream of a guitar that shoots bullets, he says.

“For me the best arm is definitely the guitar and poetry. No way for peace with any weapon!”

Since its introduction to Western audiences, Tinariwen has welcomed collaborations with artists including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, and, on the new album, Kurt Vile and Mark Lanegan, to name a few. But the sound remains constant — a lilting, rhythmic roots music that works like a trance, like one never-ending story unspooling across tracks and albums.

They’re proud to present their culture to the world, says Ag Leche, though they didn’t plan to do so alone. For them, the desert and their lives there mean freedom itself.


“For sure we have some ideas about our land, but also for the world of tomorrow,” he says. “The world has the same problem as our region. The massive interest [in] money is the terrible reason for all the problems in humanity.”

‘Our nomadism is pastoral, and in our ancestral tradition we practice the music. Our style comes directly from the inspiration of our mode of life.’

For the Tuareg, the key to life is elemental: It’s water. The lyrics to one new song, “Sastanaqqam,” translate this way: “Can you tell me of anything better/ Than to have your friends and your mount/ And a brand-new goatskin, watertight/ To know how to find water in/ The unlikeliest of places?”


With Dengue Fever. Presented by World Music/CRASHarts and Bowery Boston. At Royale Friday at 7 p.m. Tickets: $25,

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.