Tinariwen find meaning in the desert ‘blues’
October 24, 2007
The next musician to complain about how difficult it is to get discovered might tone down the volume after hearing the story of Tinariwen. That the band comes from the West African nation of Mali may make international renown seem a longshot, but other Malian musicians – Habib Koité and Ali Farka Touré – have established themselves around the world. Tinariwen, however, comes from the desert of northern Mali; moreover, the group – whose name translates as deserts – are not Malians exactly, but part of the Touareg, an ethnic group that clashed with the military during Mali’s fight for independence in the early ’90s.The group was founded decades ago by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, though it is difficult to pinpoint an exact founding, since Tinariwen, in the largest sense, refers to whole families gathering to play the traditional music of the Touareg. Through the ’80s and ’90s, the band’s reputation was limited to the countries of northern Africa where the Touareg lived. The moment of greater exposure came when a French group, Lo’Jo, visited the Malian capital of Bamako to participate in a street music festival. After a leader of Mali’s Touareg explained their struggles since the early ’90s, Lo’Jo invited Tinariwen to do a few gigs in France, in 1999. Two years later, the first Festival in the Desert – billed as “the world’s most remote music festival” – was held in northern Mali, leading to a management deal and widespread exposure. Tinariwen has since released four CDs, including this year’s “Aman Iman: Water Is Life,” and this summer, they opened a show for the Rolling Stones at an Irish castle.Tinariwen makes its local debut Thursday, Nov. 1 at the Wheeler Opera House in the Festival of the Desert concert that also features Vieux Farka Touré, son of the late Ali Farka Touré. Following are excerpts from an e-mail Q&A with Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, a singer and guitarist with the band.Q: Your music is so much about the words, the condition of the Touareg. Is it a concern that audiences won’t understand the songs?A: All good music – Dylan, Bob Marley, the Beatles – can work on different levels. There’s the purely abstract musical level, which can cross any boundary. In the ’80s, we all used to listen to Marley and Dylan without understanding a single word of what they were saying. But this didn’t mean the music was worthless to us. The same is true of our music now. If it only creates curiosity, this is a valuable first step. It gives people a reason and desire to find out more.We realize we have to put a lot of effort into trying to explain what our songs are saying. All the lyrics are translated on the last two CDs. We’re also planning a light show which will help people to understand the meaning.
Q: If the Touareg did not have the struggles they have, would there be Tinariwen?A: We’re musicians first and foremost. We became soldiers at a certain point out of necessity, and as soon as the conflict was over, we went back to music. Of course, the experience of exile, of homesickness, of rebellion is central to our music, because it is our experience, and we would be dishonest if we tried to bury it. Any artist must be honest with the experiences they have had. Inspiration comes from experience, and that’s the same for every musician, or every good musician.Q: How did the band come to play electric guitars?A: At first, Ibrahim made his own guitars out of an oil can, a stick and bits of bicycle brake wire. There’s nothing amazing or romantic about that. Almost every guitarist in Africa had begun on this type of guitar. When he was about 18, he came across a man who had a real acoustic guitar, and eventually he bought it. That was the first guitar that any member of Tinariwen had ever played. A couple of years later, Tinariwen were invited to play a music festival in Algiers. They traveled there with an Arabic group called Sawt El Hoggar – “The Voice of the Hoggar.” It was 1982. This group had an electric guitar and after the festival, they donated it to Tinariwen. That’s how Tamashek guitar music really started. [Tamashek is the language of the Touareg.]Q: What is the importance of music to the Touareg?
A: I think music is important to every people on this earth. To the Touareg, I’d say music and poetry are as important as their animals, as their landscape, as their tents and saddles and jewels. Without music they would be naked, they would be nothing. Music is with every Touareg child from the day he or she is born … and it can be heard at every opportunity. We don’t have “‘concerts” as such in the desert. We don’t need them. Everybody knows the songs, the melodies, the rhythms. And as soon as there’s a good moment, a man will pick up a flute and play or recite poetry, a woman will bang the tindé drum or play the imzad fiddle.Q: What music have you heard and been influenced by in forming Tinariwen?A: Tinariwen is essentially a collective of singer-songwriters, and each of us has his own influences and musical loves. I just love the acoustic guitar and acoustic music, especially country and western, and artists like Don Williams and Johnny Cash. I also love Ali Farka Touré. We all do. Ibrahim and Japonais [a leading poet of the Tamashek language] and the other older members of Tinariwen love artists like Santana and Dire Straits. They were huge amongst the desert youth in the ’70s and ’80s. But I think above all, for all of us, the greatest influence is our own traditional music. That’s the music we were born with, and it still flows through us.Q: Do you know much of American blues?A: Until we first started touring outside Africa, in 2001, we had never really heard of the American blues. We knew Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, but we hadn’t ever heard any real American blues artists. And then when we started traveling in Europe, people were always coming up to us and telling us we sounded like “the blues” and that what we were playing was “the desert blues.” This was fascinating for us, of course, and surprising too. When we eventually heard Taj Mahal or Lightning Hopkins, we were also struck by the similarity with our music. I think historians know the reason why. It’s something to do with the music which the Africans took to American in the time of slavery.What’s also curious is we have a word, “assouf,” which means emotional or spiritual pain, longing, homesickness. It’s a very important word in our vocabulary. Some Touaregs calls the kind of music we play “assouf” music. In effect, this word is the same as “blues.” I have “assouf” or I’ve got the “blues.” It means the same thing.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org