Mali Group, Tinariwen, earns top music honor

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A Mali music band has emerged as the most inspiring and rewarding musicians of the past 12 months, beating the likes of Kings of Leon and Bob Dylan to the award. The African band known as Tinariwen, were the only non-US act on the shortlist of eight.

The 2009 Uncut Music Award for best album was given to the Tuareg musicians from the Sahara region. The band was a unanimous choice by a panel of 11 judges. The group rose to prominence in the 1980s, raising awareness of political issues faced in the region.

“It gives us the strength to carry on working and spreading the message about the peace of our desert home and I’m glad that our music can cross the frontiers and talk to people around the world,” said Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, one of the band members.

The band sings in a local dialect, and even though their lyrics are not understood by the judges, the message in their songs was still communicated.

“It speaks a common language. You don’t have to have the lyrics translated to know what they’re talking about. You don’t need to listen to the words of rock ‘n’ roll to be excited by it,” said Allan Jones, Uncut magazine editor.

Andy Morgan in his May 2009 Tinariwen biography asks, “How do you compress a thirty-year epic into a few pages? Tinariwen, whose back-story has variously been described as “the most compelling of any band” (Songlines), “the most rock’n’roll of them all” (The Irish Times), “hard-bitten” ( and “dramatic” (The Independent), are both a dream and a nightmare for any aspiring music writer: a dream because the most superficial ‘headlines’ of their tale – rebellion, guns and guitars, desert nomads, Ghadaffi, the real Saharan blues – are like easy nuggets of gold to thrill-seeking journalists and literary prospectors.

And a nightmare, because none of these clichés really do the band justice or even begin to describe who they are, what they feel or the music they play. The following comprises only the chapter headings, the main way markers of the long road the group have travelled from the wild empty places of the southern Sahara desert to the concert stages of the world.

“In 1980, Colonel Ghadaffi put out a decree inviting all young Touareg men, who were living illegally in Libya, to come and receive a full military training at a designated camp in the southern desert. It was an opportunistic move. The Touareg had long held a reputation as brilliant Bushmen and desert fighters. Ghadaffi dreamed of forming a Saharan regiment, made of the best young Touareg fighters, to further his territorial ambitions in Chad, Niger and elsewhere.”

Since 2001, the founders and elders of Tinariwen have been supported and energised by a new younger generation. Most Tinariwen-inspired artists today were just children when the rebellion ravaged the north of Mali and Niger. They grew up on Tinariwen’s songs. Their presence in the group brings Tinariwen in line with so many long-lasting music and theatre groups in Africa and elsewhere, who, by integrating successive generations of artists into their ranks, become self-perpetuating.

“Of the many stories of suffering and incidents of callousness that survive in the collective memory, there is one that is crucial to our story. It concerns a mason and trader by the name of Alhabib Ag Sidi who was arrested in front of his family in the village of Tessalit, taken to the barracks in Kidal and executed for aiding the rebels. The army then went and destroyed Alhabib’s herd of camels, cattle and goats. His young four-year old son Ibrahim witnessed this wanton act of destruction before travelling north into exile in Algeria with his family and their one remaining cow. By 1964 the uprising had been crushed, and the Adrar des Iforas was turned into a no-go zone, ruled by the Army.”

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