A Short History of Tuareg Music

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ibrahim Mouhamadine about the political and cultural context of Tuareg guitar music. Western audiences are clearly increasingly entranced by this music, as evidenced by the buzz around releases and live shows by Tinariwen, Bombino, Mdou Moctar.

The transcendent sounds of these bands, however, belie the turbulent origins of this music. As Mouhamadine says, the music of bands like Tinariwen originally served as “the newspaper” for people, who did not always have access to other forms of media, whether due to political repression or nomadic lifestyle. Tinariwen’s music was initially in the form of cassettes, copied and passed hand to hand, spreading their message of independence and support for the Tuareg people.

The Tuareg people (also known as Imuhagh or Kel Tamasheq) are traditionally nomadic, whose domain preceded the modern nations of: Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso. As the independence movement of the 1950s and 1960s led to the area being divided among these five nations, the Tuareg people did not gain their own majority country. In 1958, representatives of the Tuareg asked French president de Gaulle in 1958 not to attach their territory to Mali.  Three years after Mali declared independence in 1960, the first Tuareg uprising took place.  The Malian army suppressed this rebellion, killing and imprisoning its leaders and persecuting their supporters. The father of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, one of the founding members of Tinariwen, was killed in 1963 (he was memorialized in the band’s song Soixante Trois).

Due to famine in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the population shifted more towards Libya and Algeria. In 1980, Muammar al-Gaddafi invited young Tuareg men then living illegally in Libya to joint the military, with the promise that he would help them regain territory for their people.  Gaddafi sent them to fight in Lebanon and Chad though, leading many Tuareg to desert, returning to Azawad (in Northern Mali) and Azawagh (in NW Niger) to form a new resistance effort. Original members of Tinariwen were part of this movement, joining the Libyan army in 1980, but returning to Mali by 1990 to focus on using music as their means to support the Tuareg cause. Originally, the band were unofficially known as Kel Tinariwen — or “people of the desert” (Tinariwen being the plural of tenere (desert)) in the Tamashek language. In 2001, Tinariwen’s album the Radio Tisdas sessions was their first recording to be released outside of North Africa.

In 1990, Tuareg people in Mali and Niger claimed autonomy for their homeland, “Tenere.” They fought with the militaries of both countries. Peace agreements (1992 in Mali, 1995 in Niger) called for decentralization of the national powers and the integration of the Tuareg into the national armed forces. In 1995, Mano Dayak, one of the Tuareg rebel leaders, who had refused to accept the terms of the agreement, died in a plane crash while on the way to meet with the prime minister of Niger. Tinariwen later dedicated a song to him. 

In 2006 there was a new uprising led by those who believed the peace agreements did not actually lead to meaningful benefits for the Tuareg. For France, there were potential economic benefits to ongoing instability and insecurity, as the situation kept other foreign countries coming in to extract uranium.

In 2010 a secular peace movement to gain autonomy from Mali became the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad). Two years later the MNLA declared independence for Tuareg territory. This conflict was co-opted by Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups (Ansar-Din and MUJAO), who attempted to take over all of Mali. Their efforts to create an Islamic state led to outlawing of music and persecution of musical groups. The famed Festival of the Desert in Timbuktu, which has featured many of the musicians of the area, was forced to cease due to concerns about safety. This also led to the The French army invading and pushing back these groups, leaving a UN peacekeeping force still in place. However, the remote nature of the area allows pockets of radicals to remain.

A selective list of other groups:

Imarhan Timbuktu


Group Inerane




Etran Finatwa

Afous d’Afous

Have a listen to dj brzy’s show on Tuareg music.