Founded during the 1980s in semi-permanent migrant worker camps in Libya, Tuareg group Tinariwen have been playing their own brand of Saharan Assouf (Desert Blues) for decades. After a fascinating, turbulent and at times tragic journey, the band’s original members now play alongside their younger counterparts, enjoying a huge international following. There is also a real sense of mythology that surrounds the group, a product of their intriguing musical roots and their armed involvement in the protracted Tuareg struggle for independence in Mali. It was this same conflict that led to the execution of founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s father, which he witnessed in 1963 at the age of four. 

Their most recent album Emaar (2013) is their first recorded outside of the Sahara, captured instead in another desert: Joshua Tree, California. Although the songs document lyrically the present turmoil crippling northern Mali, the band has also explained the work’s desire to express a nostalgia for older, more peaceful times. This is also reflected in the beautifully layered sound of Emaar, which in spite of its greater focus on electric guitar has a profoundly natural and atmospheric feel, representative of the band’s roots. A musical form of intense grace, Tinariwen’s Assouf immediately evokes images of the landscapes and skies of its birthplace the Sahara. Its bluesy character is at once familiar but unmistakeably unique, where the subtlety and warmth of the guitar riffs and licks have a humility that feels very different to the blues’ traditional emphasis on more theatrical instrumental solos. To complement the studio sound of Emaar, Tinariwen are also about to release a stunning live EP (Inside/Outside: Joshua Tree Acoustic Sessions), recorded around a campfire whilst they were working on the album.

We were incredibly lucky to catch them at their Roundhouse show in Camden last Sunday. Hypnotic, haunting and full of both joy and tragedy, it was a breathtaking performance from one of the most remarkable bands of all time.