Tinariwen is a Tuareg group that performs a guitar-centric branch of Malian music that, to the untrained ear, is reminiscent of Ali Farka Touré's, but is far more rock-oriented and percussive. All of the band's musicians originate from the southern Sahara; the group's name, meaning "empty places," is a reflection of their land of origin. The band formed in the rebel camps of Colonel Gaddafi, as each of the musicians had been forced from their nomadic lifestyle into involuntary military service. Surrounded by a displaced nation of their peers, Tinariwen forged a new style of music, trading their traditional lutes and shepherd's flutes for electric guitars and drums. The style that resulted was dubbed "Tishoumaren," or "the music of the unemployed." Their music addresses issues such as political awakening, problems of exile, repression of their people, and demands of sovereignty.
In a region with no postal or telephone system, their tapes soon became a grassroots voice of rebellion and a rallying point for the disenfranchised nation. Though outlawed in Algeria and Mali, 2001's The Radio Tisdas Sessions and 2004's Amassakoul are available to Western audiences. In 2006, they recorded their third album, Aman Iman: Water Is Life, released internationally in 2007 by Harmonia Mundi's World Village imprint. The album was produced by Justin Adams, and featured the voice and guitar of founding member Mohammed Ag Itlale. Tinariwen toured the world for the first time in its wake. They followed the album with Imidiwan: Companions, a two-disc set containing one disc of music and a DVD documentary about Tinariwen's history. This was once again followed by a world tour that included numerous festival appearances in the United States and Europe.
Tinariwen signed to America's Anti imprint in 2010. The label encouraged them to experiment. The end result was Tassili, issued in 2011, in which the band recorded a completely acoustic set in a protected region of the southeastern Algerian desert. The tapes were flown to America where guitarist Nels Cline overdubbed electric guitars and New Orleans' famed Dirty Dozen Brass Band added horns, making Tassili a truly international collaboration. The album won a Grammy. The bandmembers were forced to flee Mali due to political and social unrest, and recorded their follow-up, Emmaar, at a studio in Joshua Tree National Park in the United States. It was released in February of 2014. Despite ongoing political upheaval, the band reconvened in 2016 after touring behind Emmaar, to record their sixth studio album, Elwan. ~ Evan C. Gutierrez & Thom Jurek