Songlines | Tinariwen

Tinariwen Profile

Photo: Marie Planielle

The Touareg guitar band Tinariwen introduced the world to the Saharan desert blues, winning over fans of both world music and indie rock


Since their debut album in 2001, the throbbing desert blues of the Touareg guitar band Tinariwen has conquered the musical world, garnering a following that encompasses world music and indie rock fans and numbers the likes of Robert Plant, U2, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Chris Martin of Coldplay among their supporters.

Formed in the early 1980s in exile in a refugee camp in Libya, the band members trained as armed rebels before exchanging their Kalashnikovs for guitars. After a decade spent playing gigs for far-flung Touareg communities throughout the Sahara region, Tinariwen came to international attention via the French band Lo’jo when the two groups combined forces to organise the first Festival au Désert in northern Mali in 2001.

Justin Adams, now the guitarist with Robert Plant’s band the Sensational Shape Shifters, produced Tinariwen’s first album in a makeshift studio immediately after the festival and within months the group’s serpentine guitar lines and trance-like desert rhythms had astonished crowds at WOMAD and Roskilde.

Since then Tinariwen have gone from strength to strength, releasing a series of remarkable albums, winning a Grammy award and performing around the world. Their success has also launched a wave of similar Touareg guitar bands such as Tamikrest, Imarhan and Terakaft.

They were forced to flee their desert home in 2012 when the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine took over part of northern Mali and banned music. Used to overcoming such adversity, the group responded by making some of the most potent music of their career, recording the albums Emmaar (2014) and Elwan (2017) in California’s Joshua Tree desert.

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