Listen to this track by actual rock ‘n’ roll rebels from the sahara region of northern Mali and Algeria, Tinariwen. It’s “Matadjem Yinmixan”, a key track as taken from their 2007 album, directly translated as “water is life” from the Tuareg language tamasheq native to the band . This title is perhaps of no surprise given the band’s origins, and even their name, which in English means “deserts”.
I say that they are actual rebels because the Tuareg people were involved in a war of independence in the early sixties and again in Libya in the mid-eighties, spending the ensuing years in between as a scattered people living their nomadic lives in various countries that make up northern Africa, including Mali. This is also a region known for being host to a source of the blues. In a region of the world where the desert is encrouching into farmlands every year, it’s easy to believe that the blues in several respects is alive and well on the edge of the Sahara.
But, in this case, it would be a mistake to think that Tinariwen’s music flows from this one source alone. In fact, the music they make is much like many other things in the Tuareg culture; it wanders, and picks up useful elements on its travels.
West Africa is a hotbed of folk music forms from which this song and the band’s sound in general was formed. Some of these streams of music come from Tuareg traditional music, and the influence of a wider regional sound as heard in the music of contemporaries like Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabete. But, West Africa is also a hotbed of another musical stream, of sorts; rock bootleg albums! Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Santana (for whom Tinariwen eventually opened), and Dire Straits, not to mention country music and reggae, were all filtered through the underground bootleg industry in Africa and into the ears of local musicians by the time Tinariwen formed in 1979.
In this way, the blues proved itself to be pretty nomadic, too. It had spread out from Africa, to the Americas, to Europe, and back to Africa again many times by the two-thousands. It’s all of these influences collected along that journey that helped the members of the band come together and create their own sound that you can hear in this very song, after the band began to follow the path where the music had gone.
Lyrically too, the band is the sum of their origins, with this song being a protest song about the futility of violence and of nationalism, coming from members of a people used as political pawns and fighting stock during Gadafffi’s reign in Libya. It concerns itself with generational hatred and factionalism, which members of this band knew about intimately. In this, their status as rebels takes on another form; to reject a given path handed down to them, and to open the possibilities by introducing themselves and their audience to the borderless nature of the blues and its many children.
If you’re going to be a rebel with a cause, then you could do worse than that.
For more information about Tinariwen, investigate tinariwen.com.
Also, check out this article that traces the history of the band in greater detail.