Like many others in the wake of February’s drought-breaking rain, I made the trip to Joshua Tree National Park following highly corroborated promises of flowers blooming in this desert for the first time, supposedly, in years. Attached to the park map provided upon entry is Joshua Tree’s Spring 2017 informational newspaper, whose feature story “A Desert Unsung” recounts the 30 year anniversary of U2’s fifth album The Joshua Tree and its importance for the park culturally and for the subsequent spike in attendance. What the article deems “Unsung” is the portion of the park – itself a junction of two desert climates – without the succulents Mormons likened to the biblical Joshua and that U2 thought would look good on an album cover. It implores the reader to investigate these parts of the park which are too often overlooked.
In March of 1987, the members of Tinariwen were in Libyan refugee camps freely circulating their music to anyone with a blank cassette. Having formed in 1979 in a Gaddafi-sponsored military training camp, Tinariwen were on the way to becoming Grammy award-winning purveyors of traditionally minded Tichumaren, a Tamasheq re-appropriation of the French “chômeur” meaning “music of the unemployed”. The music echoes oral traditions of the formerly nomadic people, carried on by those who found themselves in the rebel camps of Muammar Gaddafi in the wake of post-colonial turmoil. All of the band’s members were actively receiving military training while they were discovering American pop and rock music. For guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, this newfound access fueled his self-study of the guitar that he began as a child; the influence Ag Alhabib chalks up to artists like Jimi Hendrix and Boney M is instantly recognizable in his meandering guitar over the band’s easy maneuvering of rhythmic textures that beckon listeners to the dance floor. Political unrest remained a constant for every member of the group’s rotating cast, who remained politically active through their commercial success. Shortly before winning their Grammy for 2012’s “Tassili,” Tinariwen performed alongside U2 on the “Festival au Désert” stage that had once propelled them to fame; this year, the Festival was cancelled due to threats from Islamic extremists who seek to ban music altogether.
Two years later, in 2014, Tinariwen were forced into exile from their home country of Mali, eventually re-convening in, of all places, Joshua Tree National Park to record their sixth album Emmaar. This familiar, (multi-)desert environment served as inspiration and recording space for an album that dealt with their displacement and the abduction of guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida, who was released after several days by a Malian militant group. Tinariwen finds the loneliness driving the songs on Emmaar in Joshua Tree’s 800,000 acres as much as they ever had in the Sahara, the desert where they feel most belonging. “Sastanàqqàm”, a standout track from their latest album Elwan that proved to be a crowd favorite, asks of the desert:
Ténéré, can you tell me/ of anything better/ Than to have your friends/ and your mount… To know how/ to find water in/ The unlikeliest of places/ And enlist the momentum/ of the wind/ To help you move forward?
Tinariwen reaffirm the notion that loneliness, when shared, can give a voice to the unheard and empowerment to the disenfranchised. Recurring themes of isolation, when combined with their guitar-centric instrumentation, leads to their music being sold as “desert blues”. However, given their all-male vocals, steady backbeat, minimal approach to chord changes, and empathy for the “lonesome” of the world, one could just as easily view them as a North African country band dancing around cowboy tropes with classic rock sensibilities.
Tinariwen closed their set at Apogee Studios with “Imidwa Ma Tenam”, a track from Emmaar that engages with a personification of the desert, emphasizing its jealousy towards the “green lands” that exist outside of its arid domain. The song repeats, “We live in ignorance and it holds all the power.” Tinariwen have made it a mission to provide a context for this ignorance and to make room for alternatives. Just as they have worked to repurpose racial epithets, musical traditions, and instruments themselves, Tinariwen continue to foster an evolving dialogue surrounding their home and the people they are working hard to empower. An understanding of Tamasheq is not a requirement to understand this impact – but an appreciation for the desert would not hurt.
To hear this performance, tune in to KCRW 89.9’s Morning Becomes Eclectic this Wednesday, April 19th, or find the stream posted online afterward. It’s the next best thing to visiting the Mojave, Colorado, or Sahara.
If an image below is pixelated, please click through the “view full size” link for a better view.