Lost in translation — Their story has been called the most compelling in music and “the most rock ‘n’ roll of them all.” But for Tinariwen, who formed in a rebel training camp run by Muammar Gaddafi – and their offshoot Terakaft – rock ’n’ roll doesn’t mean women, sex and drugs. It means using guitars not guns to fight for a brighter future.

Climbing on stage, Sanou Ag Ahmed grabs his guitar and starts picking. Swirling riffs fill the room, slowly at first and then at speed. Ibrahim Ag Ahmed – who goes by the name Pino – joins in with an insistent bass line. Pino wears a top hat that gives him a Slash from Guns N’ Roses look. Soon the pair, both in military jackets and new Converse low cuts, fill London’s Electrowerkz club with a driving sound that comes straight out of the Sahara.

Sanou and Pino are the younger members of Terakaft, a four-man band from northern Mali that travel the world singing about their people, the Tuareg, sub-Saharan Africa’s nomadic minority who have always found themselves straddling borders and subject to distant governments. Terakaft was formed by founding members of the legendary Tinariwen, a larger collective of Tuaregs who found electric guitars in the 1980s as exiles in Libya and created a desert sound unlike anything the world had heard before.

Playing now makes him nostalgic, Pino says after the soundcheck. His Terakaft bandmates begin transforming themselves, donning Tuareg robes and wrapping long scarves around to cover their faces. Even nomads get homesick and they haven’t been able to return to their native northern Mali for eighteen months. For the moment, their band is caught between two worlds. “We want to go back,” Pino says.

Elizabeth Dalziel

Photo by Elizabeth Dalziel

After al-Qaida-backed Tuareg Islamists took control of two thirds of Mali early last year, the French army intervened in Mali in January pushing them back. Terakaft and Tinariwen are glad to see the Islamists gone. The bands are secular: They like drinking, girls and playing what the Islamists call ‘Satan’s music’.

But French intervention hasn’t brought peace to the region. Malian troops clashed with Tuareg fighters in the beginning of June. The fighting has displaced more than 500,000 people in one of the southern Sahara’s biggest humanitarian crises ever.

On the road, the musicians call home frequently, but they can’t tell whether things are settling down. “We don’t know,” Pino says, speaking French. “There are still problems. People were overrun by terrorists and bandits so they had to evacuate. Most people are in exile in Niger, Algeria and Burkina.” He explains that people are trying to find ways to feed their families and many are waiting in refugee camps.

The absence of Terakaft’s leader is another reminder of the difficulties back home. The missing link is Sanou’s uncle, Liya Ag Ablil – aka Diara – one of the original members of Tinariwen, the Grammy award-winning group who first brought Tuareg music to the fore. In April, Diara was travelling home to see his family and disappeared. Then ten days before the London show, he called from a jail in northern Mali, the band’s manager Philippe Brix explains.

Photo by Adrian Morris

Photo by Adrian Morris

Diara explained how, having flown into Algeria, he was arrested amid a relay of motorcycles and ramshackle buses as he crossed the desert into Mali. With fear of foreign terrorists high, his passport aroused suspicion — it had stamps from all over the world, but no entry stamp and he had an ‘unusual’ amount of cash. Brix, who also managed Tinariwen in the past, called nearly everyone he knew, until a Malian diplomat helped free Diara.

The sand men might travel far, but they never leave the desert behind. Their hypnotic, looping, bluesy electric guitar music is the ultimate adventure soundtrack – and it plays on the headphones of some of the world’s leading musicians. Henry Rollins is a constant champion of Tinariwen, they inspired Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to write ‘The Clock’, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers has joined them onstage and members of TV on the Radio went to the Sahara to record with them. They’ve opened for the Rolling Stones and Robert Plant called discovering Tinariwen an epiphany: “I felt this was the music I’d been looking for all my life.”

Their lyrics are all in Tamashek and most members cannot speak French or English. The language barrier means both Terakaft and Tinariwen rely on mystery to draw people in. “We don’t want to show our faces too easily,” Eyadou Ag Leche, Tinariwen’s youngest member told me in a London cafe while on tour late last year. “We’re masked so that we have to speak with our eyes, with our bodies, with magic.”

While some things may get lost in translation, there is a message in their sound: the lyrics capture Tuareg life. “We talk about our exile. We talk about our travels in the desert. We talk about our fighting to be free. We talk about our children, women, everything in the desert,” Terakaft’s Pino says. “And political problems.”

Tinariwen’s story began with Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, a man Tuaregs revere as if he were John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix rolled into one. As a boy, Ibrahim watched his father die, executed by a firing squad in 1964 for helping a Tuareg rebellion against the newly independent government of Mali. He spent his childhood in refugee camps, living in Libya and Algeria with other Tuareg exiles. At one point he saw a Western film featuring a cowboy playing a guitar. Ibrahim fashioned his own guitar out of a stick, a tin can and some bicycle brake wire.

Photo by Elizabeth Dalziel

Photo by Elizabeth Dalziel

In the late 1970s, Ibrahim met Diara and other musicians in the Tuareg exile community and through rare cassette tapes they discovered outside music together, dissecting radical protest songs from Morocco and rai pop from Algeria alongside Dire Straits, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana albums.

Ibrahim formed a band with the Ag Ablil brothers, Diara and Inteyeden, and Hassan Ag Touhami in Tamanrasset, Algeria, just across the border from Mali. They performed at weddings, baptisms or simple get-togethers. The band didn’t have a name, but people called them Tinariwen – Tamashek for ‘People of the Desert’ or ‘Desert Boys’.

They only got their hands on a real acoustic guitar in 1979 and a year later Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, dreaming of a Saharan regiment, invited all young Tuareg men to come receive military training. Ibrahim and his bandmates went  to rebel boot camp. In 1985 a similar call came and this time  in the camp they met Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, Mohammed Ag Itlale – aka Japonais – and Keddou Ag Ossade, who also helped found Terakaft.

Photo by Adrian Morris

Photo by Adrian Morris

Rebel leaders saw how Tinariwen could help spread their message and encouraged the band to record. They built a makeshift studio and recorded free music for anyone who came to them with a blank cassette tape. Tinariwen members fought in rebellions in Mali and Niger. At the same time, their cassettes scattered across the Sahara.

“These cassettes were banned, it was forbidden to listen to them. If the Malian authorities found you with a Tinariwen cassette, you were in prison,” says Eyadou, who remembers as a child listening to the latest Tinariwen. “The cassettes would go on tour. People would bring their radio, put it down and the people would sit down, it became a party and
people listened.”

After peace agreements were signed in the mid-1990s, Tinariwen continued to spread word of this Tuareg struggle and marginalisation, playing gigs throughout the Sahara region. The band’s official bio says they became spokesmen for a generation whose traditions were upended by drought and urbanisation and felt helpless “as their harvests thinned, their animal herds wasted away and their world slowly crumbled.”

Tinariwen’s international break came in 1998 when they met members of the French band Lo’Jo at a music festival in Bamako. Together, the two groups organised the 2001 Festival of the Desert in Essakane, Mali, with Tinariwen headlining. The festival put an international spotlight on the group and by the end of the year, Tinariwen had performed at WOMAD, Roskilde and London’s Southbank. The Radio Tisdas Sessions, their first album released outside northern Africa was selling around the world.

Tinariwen added several younger Tuareg musicians, who didn’t live through the military conflicts experienced by the older members. Eyadou has known the band all his life — they played at his baptism. As he grew into a talented guitar player in his teens, Tinariwen’s Hassan tapped him on the head and said, “One day we’re going to Europe. If we go, we’re taking you with us.” Within a few years Eyadou was overseas and onstage.

Diara, however, wasn’t as lucky. He was in a remote part of northern Mali and unable to get a visa in time. He continues to record on Tinariwen albums, but focuses his energy on writing songs with his nephew’s tighter, four-man band Terakaft.

Photo by Adrian Morris

Photo by Adrian Morris

After more than a decade of touring the world singing about Azawad – the dream of an independent Tuareg state – last year it nearly became real. As Gaddafi’s regime collapsed, Tuaregs who had risen through the Libyan army’s ranks sped home in four-wheel-drives mounted with heavy machine guns and rocket-launchers. The veteran rebels met near the Algeria-Mali border and with activists and Malian army deserters helped found the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or the MNLA. The MNLA captured town after town in the north eventually declaring independence.

Amid the chaos, factions emerged. Islamists backed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who were better armed and better funded, hijacked the rebellion and started enforcing fundamentalist interpretations of Sharia, or Islamic law. Once again, Tinariwen’s music was banned – and all other music with it.

Photo by Adrian Morris

Photo by Adrian Morris

In Kidal, home to several Tinariwen members, militia members went to the home of a local musician and warned his sister: “If you speak to him, tell him that if he ever shows his face in this town again, we’ll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with,” Tinariwen’s former manager Andy Morgan wrote in The Guardian.

Islamists collected guitars, amplifiers, speakers, microphones and drum kits, poured petrol on them and set them ablaze, Morgan recounted. They ripped people’s mobiles from their hands when a musical ringtone went off. “Music was forbidden, culture was forbidden, Coca-Cola was forbidden. For stealing for example, thieves had their hands amputated,” Pino says. “You can’t separate Tuaregs from their culture. If there’s no culture, then there are no Tuaregs. It’s the foundation, it’s time, it’s our civilisation.”

Tinariwen’s hopes for independence have not faded, though. They hung an Azawad flag behind them when they performed in the UK in November and opened their shows with a song about the dream of Azawad. But Ibrahim was not with them, band members said it had been months since they had seen him.

“Ibrahim has a big responsibility,” Eyadou said. “He has a lot of people depending on him so if he leaves, there will be big problems. So he stayed behind to be a rock for his brothers and his family.” Abdallah took over his role as leader of the band. He was upbeat while performing, but backstage he was pensive. “Independence is what we wanted, but right now we have nothing,” he said, adding that it even be necessary for Tinariwen members to resume fighting. “We have a military background and if they need us to fight, we can always join them.”

Photo by Adrian Morris

Photo by Adrian Morris

Today, the Tuaregs’ enemy is the Islamists. “We have an enemy that is hunted around the world and we’re at war with them, but there’s no one in the world who’s talking about it,” Eyadou said. And in January, that enemy came to arrest Tinariwen in Timbuktu. Most of the members escaped into the city’s alleys, but one of the younger members Abdallah Ag Lamida, aka Intidao, was caught as he tried to save his guitars. He went missing but within a few days the band announced that he was safe and free.

A few weeks later French troops arrived to break the Islamists hold over the northern two-thirds of Mali. And while the future remains unwritten, the music carries on. Ibrahim has since re-emerged and started performing with Tinariwen again and Diara rejoined Terakaft in Rome. Both bands are about to record new albums. With the situation still tense at home Tinariwen will record in a US desert location, Eyadou says.

The Tuareg dream of independence may have turned into a nightmare, but Terakaft are determined to distill that story into music that resonates far beyond their home. “Our songwriting is the result of events,” Sanou says in Tamashek with Pino translating, “events that have happened. So we write about the terrorism, we write about the geopolitics of the Sahara, we write about the people’s exile, we write about the people’s beauty, we write about the people’s freedom.”

New album Alone is out on Out Here Records on Friday, May 8. Catch them live on Wednesday, April 29, at London’s Rich Mix.

This article originally appeared in Huck #039- The Sofia Coppolla issue.

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