If you’re one of the hundreds of millions expected to tune in for the concert kicking off the World Cup in Soweto tonight, keep an eye out for Tinariwen, due on stage at Orlando Stadium at 9.30pm local time (3.30pm EST). In the 60 odd years it’s been around, rock ‘n’ roll has progressed from the sound of rebellion to the sound of a billion-dollar music establishment. But Tinariwen are the real deal. The group was formed by Ibrahim Ag Alhabibin and a few fellow musicians in 1980 inside a rebel training camp for Malian Tuareg fighters in Libya. Libyan leader Mouamar Qaddafi set up the camp to help Tuaregs launch an offensive against the then Malian government, which had repressed the Tuareg population in the 1960s and 1970s and forced tens of thousands of Tuaregs into exile. Qaddafi’s interest was in supporting his fellow desert-dwelling brethren and expanding his influence across the Sahara. Tinariwen, meaning “The Desert Boys”, became the rebellion’s official musical chroniclers, writing and recording songs about freedom and oppression, then distributing their cassettes to Tuaregs across Mali and in exile. Eventually Tinariwen grew tired of waiting for the promised revolution – which eventually began in 1990, ended six months later in a peace deal only supported by some of the, by now, highly factionalized rebels – and vowed to focus on their art. Several albums followed, some of them recorded in studios in Mali, some out in the desert, and in the last decade the group has built a global following at hundreds of concerts in the US and Europe.
Yesterday I met Tinariwen’s bassist Eyadou Ag Leche at his hotel in Johannesburg. Eyadou is 30, Algerian and from the second, younger generation of Tuareg musicians now playing for Tinariwen. He was a boy when the band first formed; his father fought for the rebels as an officer. Ibrahim and the original Tinariwen line-up wrote hundreds of songs in Libya, he says, and those still form the bulk of the group’s repertoire. But the band has also added new compositions about issues that affect Mali today, such as drought and poverty as well as a deep spiritual connection to the animals and nature of the desert
To describe Tinariwen’s sound, Eyadou used a Tuareg word: assouf. The term, he said, captured a feeling of nostalgia and longing for the simplicity and purity of desert living, and a kind of primal connection to the landscape that, he insisted, was innate in every Tuareg and, indeed, every human. Assouf, said Eyadou, explained the extraordinary reaction the group has witnessed to their music at concerts around the world. “We find a lot of people who cry,” he said. “You see assouf in their eyes, all these people from Europe and America. They’re discovering this connection to the music and the desert. The music reveals their true but hidden feelings, their true nature, their soul. I’ve met a lot of people who say they don’t understand the lyrics, but they can feel what we are saying.”
Tinariwen will be one highlight in an extraordinarily cosmopolitan line-up that kicks off with the Black Eyed Peas and features among others John Legend, Alicia Keys, Angelique Kidjo, Amadou and Miriam, the Soweto Gospel Choir, and Shakira and Freshlyground singing the tournament theme, “Time for Africa.” I’m planning to be down at the front, getting my assouf on.