Not much can warm a cold, grey evening in West London. Tinariwen’s inimitable desert blues, however, is a rare exception. Riding high off their recent success at the Grammys, the Tuareg rockers from the Sahara, adorned in their full desert regalia, were in typically stunning form as they played to a packed Shepherd’s Bush Empire, put on by music promoters Soundcrash.
For those unaware of this exceptional outfit, Tinariwen is an ever-shifting band (for this gig, they were a six-piece) of Tuareg-Berber musicians from northern Mali. They were founded by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who, as a boy, saw a western film in which a cowboy played a guitar, inspiring him to construct his own guitar from a tin can, stick and bicycle brake wire-so the story goes. With war raging in his Malian homeland, he grew up in Libyan refugee camps, jamming with fellow young Tuaregs who drew on the local assouf style and bootlegged cassettes of Santana, Led Zeppelin, Dylan, Marley and Hendrix that found their way into the refugee camps.
Ibrahim formed Tinariwen around 1979 in the camps but the men soon joined the Libyan military after former dictator Gaddafi issued a decree in 1980 inviting all young Tuareg men living illegally in Libya to receive full military training. During their army years, they continued to sing and play guitar, vowing to record music for free for anyone who supplied a blank cassette tape. It wasn’t till 2001 that the group started to gain a following outside the Sahara with the release of The Radio Tisdas Sessions and performances at Mali ‘s Festival au Désert and Roskilde in Denmark. Their critically acclaimed album Aman Iman in 2007 then propelled them into the international limelight.