Tinariwen a band of Tuareg-Berber musicians from the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali. The band was formed around 1979 in refugee camps in Libya but returned to Mali after a cease-fire in the 1990s. The group first started to gain a following outside the Sahara region in 2001, with the release of The Radio Tisdas Sessions, and the performances at Festival au Désert in Mali and at the Roskilde festival in Denmark. Their popularity rose internationally with the release of the critically acclaimed Aman Iman in 2007.
Tinariwen was founded by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who at age four witnessed the execution of his father (a Tuareg rebel) during a 1963 uprising in Mali. As a child he saw a western film in which a cowboy played a guitar. Ag Alhabib built his own guitar out of a tin can, a stick and bicycle brake wire. He started to play old Tuareg and modern Arabic pop tunes. Ag Alhabib first lived in refugee camps and later resided with other Tuareg exiles in Libya and Algeria.
In 1980, Libyan ruler Muammar al-Gaddafi put out a decree inviting all young Tuareg men who were living illegally in Libya to receive full military training. Gaddafi dreamed of forming a Saharan regiment, made up of the best young Tuareg fighters, to further his territorial ambitions in Chad, Niger, and elsewhere. Ag Alhabib and his bandmates answered the call and received nine months of training. They answered a similar call in 1985, this time by leaders of the Tuareg rebel movement in Libya, and met fellow musicians Keddou Ag Ossade, Mohammed Ag Itlale (aka “Japonais”), Sweiloum, Abouhadid, and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni. All sang and played guitar in various permutations. The musicians joined together in a collective (now known as Tinariwen) in order to create songs about the issues facing the Tuareg people, built a makeshift studio, and vowed to record music for free for anyone who supplied a blank cassette tape. The resulting homemade cassettes were traded widely throughout the Sahara region.
The Tinariwen sound is primarily guitar-driven in the style known as assouf among the Tuareg people. The Tinariwen guitar style has its roots in West African music, specifically that from the “great bend” region along the Niger River, between Timbuktu and Gao.
The band released their fifth album Tassili on August 30, 2011. The album later won the Award for Best World Music Album at the 54th Grammy Awards.