Making it big in the music business is often a shock for the musicians in question.

But for the members of Tinariwen, that shock is 10-fold and then some.

The members are from the remote desert region of Azawad in the African nation of Mali. They’ve lived through, and fought in, various rebellions. They speak no English, and knew very little about American pop music until they started getting international acclaim about seven years ago.

But now, dressed in their traditional Tuareg robes, they share stages with the likes of Robert Plant and Carlos Santana. They’ve done some 700 concerts in Europe, North America and Australia.

Tinariwen will bring its culture-crossing music to Portland on Friday with a show at Port City Music Hall.

The band’s members sing in the Tamashek language, so it’s not like people in Portland will be singing along. And the Tinariwen members won’t be doing a lot of back and forth with the audience, either.


But that’s fine with them, and their audiences.

“Music is universal, we just want universal love,” said Eyadou Ag Leche, 36, singer and electric bass player, through a translator via e-mail. “People are free to find out the meaning of our lyrics or to take interest in our political beliefs.”

Tinariwen’s sound is a blend of electric-guitar powered bluesy rock riffs, with vocals that sound like religious chanting. The sound is raw and rootsy.

But the lyrics are not your standard American blues fare, with the singer in search of a good time or a good woman.

Instead, Tinariwen’s songs are often tied specifically to their country’s and their region’s troubled and bloody history over the past 50 years.

Mali won freedom from France in the early ’60s, and nearly since then the Tuaregs in northern Mali have been fighting for self-rule. Tuaregs are descendants of a nomadic people, and their rural culture is often at odds with the politicians running the country from the capital, Bamako. Water rights are a big issue in the desert region.


Tinariwen’s song “63” is about the first Tuareg uprising against the new Mali government, in 1963. Another song, “Toumast Tincha” means literally, the “people have been sold.”

“The answer to the violence we have seen is music,” said Ag Leche, adding that not all the songs are about war and protest.

The latest Tuareg uprising was in 2012, when separatist groups declared Azawad an independent state. The clash continues, but peace talks are ongoing. Because of the trouble in Mali, band founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib decided to stay there and is not on Tinariwen’s current world tour.

Ag Alhabib, whose father was executed during the 1963 uprising, founded Tinariwen in 1979. The band has had lots of different members, and today has a touring group of about eight musicians. Over the years, several band members have fought in the revolts of their homeland.

Beginning about 10 years ago, younger musicians began to join the group and the band started releasing albums internationally. The album “Aman Iman” in 2007 led to critical acclaim and world tours.

Most of the members grew up listening to traditional music of their region or nearby countries. They discovered Western music later in life and are trying to make up for lost time.


Ag Leche, for instance, says he started listening to Jimi Hendrix around 2006 and is “very frustrated” he could not have seen Hendrix perform when he was alive.

Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, acoustic guitar player in the band, is fond of American country music.

Another learning curve for the band is gauging the popularity of Western musicians they now find themselves playing with.

“We have performed with many American musicians and most of the time we did not know them,” said Ag Leche. “When Robert Plant has joined us on stage, the audience knew him better than us.”

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: RayRouthier

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