Asawari Ghatage caught up with the Tuareg band from Mali, Tinariwen, ahead of their show at the Jaipur Literature Festival
Through an uprising in Mali, living in refugee camps in Algeria, and finally returning home, only to embrace the world through tours, music band Tinariwen has come a long way over the last 30 years. The story goes that founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib started playing a guitar he found in a refugee camp in 1979, and Tinariwen (which means “deserts” in Tamasheq) was born when he collaborated with Chaabi musicians from the Tuareg region. After their stint as rebel fighters in a Tuareg rebellion against their government in 1991, Tinariwen devoted their time purely to music, and by 2001 they had performed at World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) in the UK and recorded their debut collection The Radio Tisdas Sessions. A decade later, they had won a Grammy for their album Tassili, apart from having released the albums Amassakoul, Aman Iman and Imidiwan. Tinariwen’s music draws heavy influences from the folk music of Mali, and the primary guitar tones draw from assouf music (desert blues) of northern Africa. An amalgamation of western instruments like the guitar, and traditional Malian instruments like the imzad (a single string fiddle) and tindé drums.
Tinariwen’s sound is a vehicle for commentary on rebellion, revolution and the people of the Tuareg region with several members of the band singing in Tamasheq. In an interview, members of the band, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Hassan Ag Touhami, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, Eyadou Ag Leche, Said Ag Ayad, Elada Ag Hamid, Abdallah Ag Lamida and Mohammaed Ag Tahada told Time Out about their jam sessions, their new album and the India leg of their Emmaar world tour where they perform in Jaipur.
Have your ideologies and passion for your music transformed over the years?
Of course. It’s not a transformation but an evolution. And it’s mostly about how to find, to keep some positive ideas, to find a way for true and intelligent development in our region and country.
How do you compose music? Is it a process that involves taking some time off to compose music, or do songs emerge out of impromptu jam sessions in the desert?
Actually most of our songs – whether old or new ones – all of them they have been played live for a while before being recorded. Generally one of the composers comes up with his melody and all the musicians create their own parts until all are happy. For Tinariwen, we could say we almost never do any repetition – all evolution, adaptation comes often on stage from great moments of improvisation. It’s most important for us to live the music. We believe to make great music is to feel the freedom.
We hear that Tinariwen would record songs for people carrying blank audio tapes and these tapes would be traded across the Sahara. How has that process transformed into recording full albums now?
It’s the same as before. Often when we record a new album, you can find all tracks on phones or mp3 even before the release date.
Tinariwen is most known for its protest music. Since starting to tour internationally, have the political issues of the Sahara reached the world?
This is what our people are expecting from us – to spread the word about our people and our way of life. As Tinariwen represents its population, by cultural aspect, it is our ideological choice. Our poetries are not really to protest, but we are singing about how we love our desert.
How easy or difficult was it to access music by international artistes?
Of course we listened to many kinds of music during our exile, but essentially is the traditional music, tunes and rhythm that influenced us. In the ’80s, Ibrahim and friends found an acoustic guitar and they learned to play alone, instinctively. That’s how we got an authentic style, from traditional to the modernity.
Eyadou Ag Leche: The new generation of Tinariwen is listening to blues music and reggae. Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni is listening to a lot of traditional music from the Niger or Mauritania.
Tell us a bit about your new album Emmaar. This is the first album you will be recording away from your homeland. And American musicians feature in the album. Could you tell us more?
For this new album, we recorded in the California desert as our Sahara was not secure for our crew. Emmaar means “the heat of the breeze”, it is a metaphor about the situation in our land, the tension before the war, and the revolution. We invited a few musicians we met during our many tours and we were invited by the American art rock band TV on the Radio for the previous album. It is always a pleasure to meet some musicians with their experiences, and when they have a meeting with our music, we have great fun.
Is there anything in particular you are looking forward to doing while you are in India?
We’ve been talking about coming to India for a very long time. We are so happy to come visit your people. And this is such a big culture in the world. We also want to see how people live in your desert. Thanks a lot for your invitation to the so beautiful India.
Thirty five years since Tinariwen was formed, your music is still evolving…
Our goal is always to feel free, as much as we can. We believe that simplicity and spontaneity are the way to play music. We also feel it is important to retain the pleasure of performing together.
Tinariwen performs at the Music Stage of Jaipur Literature Festival on Monday, Jan 20, 2014.
This piece was originally published in Time Out Bengaluru in January 2014.