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The Hopeful Music of the Desert

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On March 14 this year, Tinariwen released an animated music video of their song ‘Nànnuflày,’ from their album ‘Elwan.’ These names may sound like a foreign language, and that’s because they are–the band is made up of Tuareg people of Mali, and ‘Tinariwen’ means ‘deserts’ in Tamasheq, the language of Tuareg people. 

Why am I writing about this? Specifically because these may sound so unfamiliar to you.

Despite their unfamiliarity, they’re a renowned group that has won Grammys and often tours Europe and North America. In 2010, the group represented Algeria in the FIFA World Cup. Last year they had popped into the internet’s eye with another animated music video of a song titled Ténéré Tàqqàl, or ‘What has become of the Desert.’ Its YouTube video hit over one million views, catching eyes with beautiful animations and a soft, blues-like tune in the group’s native language.

Often, global music is dominated by the West, sung in English and more often than not, corporate. Music like Tinariwen’s speaks out; the group was created from war. The band was born from individuals who had lived their lives in Algerian refugee camps, and during the 1990s had participated as rebels against the Mali government. In 2013, militant Islamists in Mali targeted the group and attempted to capture them, with the guitarist, Abdallah Ag Lamida, ending up captured. He was released weeks afterward, but the message was clear: despite being born of trials from the 80s, the band still has much to sing about in terms of oppression and violence.

Nànnuflày’s music video shows two men growing up together. They use their music to sing about their people and the issues they face, blending Western beats with Tuareg singing and instruments in a way that humanizes and familiarizes the West with Middle Eastern culture in ways that were previously impossible. Their music is not only beautiful, but it’s important to help familiarize us with the fact that war is terrible everywhere. It may seem easy for some to denounce the war-torn regions of the Middle East as full of backward people who love the Taliban, but Tinariwen’s music softly reminds us of the plight of humans just trying to live in the midst of violence. 

Here is an excerpt from a poem that is shown at the beginning of Ténéré Tàqqàl:

You can read the bitterness on the faces of the innocents / During this difficult and bruising time / In which all solidarity has gone. / The strongest impose their will / And leave the weakest behind / Many have died battling for twisted ends / And joy has abandoned us / Exhausted by all this duplicity.

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The Hopeful Music of the Desert