This week's Eye has an article of mine on Tinariwen, a group of Touareg guitarists whose rebel rocker cred shames that of M.I.A. any day. Founded in the Libyan refugee camps in the early 80s, Tinariwen play traditional Touareg music inspired by Western rock'n'roll, with lyrics of resistance and rebellion that led to their early cassettes to be considered agitprop by the governments of Mali, Algeria and Niger. Several members took part in armed resistance fighting for Touareg autonomy; when a peace treaty was reached in the early 90s, they put down their guns and focused on their guitars.
I first reviewed their record for Eye back in March, when I had this to say in a four-star review:
"You think you got the blues? Try wandering the desert for 27 years as part of a perpetually oppressed population, serving in rebel armies and learning to play guitar with bicycle brake wire. These southern Saharan guitar slingers have every reason to play the blues, but these call-and-response melodies are much too joyful to be mired in the pain of the past. There are obvious stylistic comparisons here to the late Ali Farka Toure, but Tinariwen are rock’n’rollers who love a good wah pedal and Echoplex when the situation requires. One chord is all you need, and sometimes even less: these guitarists have that rare ability to make you feel more with one note than any intricate solo. By the time the backing vocalists start their ecstatic ululating, it’s hard not to join in."
More info can be found here. You should definitely listen to some music here.
Aman Iman is their third proper studio album, and it's reached many ears beyond the usual world music ghettoes. The link to Western music is one reason; the fact that it has better distribution is another. And while the exotic backstory helps inform the music, the music stands alone just fine without it.
I wasn't sure what to expect from this e-mail interview in advance of Tinariwen's first Canadian dates, but I was pleasantly surprised.
They play Toronto's Mod Club on Tuesday, November 20; they're in Sherbrooke, QC on the 21st, Montreal on the 23rd at Club Soda, and Quebec City on the 24th. More tour dates here.
November 9, 2007
Email interview with Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni
What sort of gigs did you play for the first 15 years?
I only started playing with Tinariwen in the mid 1980s. The group had already been going for about five years. In those days many of our concerts were just very small gatherings with our friends, either in the camp, or out in the bush. They were very basic affairs: not much equipment, no big PA system or lights—just intimate gatherings. After the end of the rebellion, in about 1991 or 1992, we started playing some bigger concerts for the Touareg communities in Bamako, or southern Algeria, and even in Abidjan, which we visited in 1992. But they were very different from the gigs we play now. There were much longer pauses between the songs, and the stage was always full of friends, dancing or singing with us. It almost as if the band wasn't just the musicians on the stage, but the whole audience as well! Some of the fireside singing sessions out in the bush during the rebellion were pretty intense.
Why and when were your cassettes illegal? In which countries were they illegal? Was this because of the political content of the lyrics, or because you were in the rebel army?
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tinariwen was already known as a group that was singing about revolt and self-determination for the Touareg people. This didn't make the group very popular with the authorities in Algeria, Mali and Niger. All these countries had a big problem with their Touareg populations at the time, and they didn't like the idea of this revolutionary message being distributed via cassette copies throughout the desert. So if you were caught with a Tinariwen cassette on your person at the time, it made you suspect in the eyes of the authorities and could lead to interrogation or arrest.
What was your first experience playing in Europe like?
It was great actually. The first time we came over was in 1998, at the invitation of the French group Lo'Jo. I came with Hassan, Foy Foy and others. We called ourselves “Azawad” because since [founding member] Ibrahim wasn't with us, we didn't feel it was quite right to call ourselves Tinariwen. We only did a few concerts, in the west of France. It was very friendly, because Lo'Jo and the people around them are so generous and open. So we loved it. And it felt like a triumph to be performing in Europe at last. We'd been dreaming of it for a long, long time.
I know that some people in the band won't be able to come to Canada. How many people are in the core band? Are there members of Tinariwen that you could not play without?
Tinariwen is a very flexible band. Even if one member of the group were to come along and perform a set of songs, it could still be called a Tinariwen concert. This is because we've always been like a collective of singer-songwriters, with a support group of friends and brothers. Even if just one of these singer-songwriters is present, then you're in front of Tinariwen.
Ibrahim, the founder of the group and its main songwriter, decided not to come on this North American tour simply because he had some serious health problems this summer, including a severe recurrence of malaria, and he felt exhausted. He need time at home in the desert to rest.
By the end of the year the group will have performed 136 concerts in 12 months. That's crazy really. It's been very hard for us, and we'd like to do things differently in the future. We need more time at home to rest, to be with friends and family, and to be inspired so that we can create new music. That's essential. This flexibility that Tinariwen has is one of the secrets of the group's survival. It has allowed it to continue existing, even when its members were dispersed all over the desert.
What is the average age of the band? How many are original members?
There are two generations in Tinariwen. There are the founders like Ibrahim and Hassan who are in their mid to late 40s. Then there are people like me, who joined in the mid 1980s. I'm in my late 30s. Then there are the younger generation, like Said, Eyadou and Intidao, who were all children at the time of rebellion in the early 1990s, and who are now in the 20s. There are two original members who are still with the band, Ibrahim and Hassan.
What kind of direction did [Robert Plant guitarist and Tinariwen producer] Justin Adams give in the studio? How do you think Tinariwen's studio recordings have evolved?
Justin is an old collaborator of ours. He produced our first CD The Radio Tisdas Session with Jean-Paul Romann, who is Lo'Jo's sound engineer. He also really loves and understands West African and desert music. In the studio he made sure that the songs were well arranged, and were the right length. He also picked out little motifs that we needed to develop or emphasize. Then he just tried to get good performances from us. You should also mention Ben Findlay, who was the engineer on the sessions. He's very effective, and knows how to work discreetly but get just the right sound.
Tinariwen's recordings have certainly evolved. Our first album Radio Tisdas was like a snapshot of what we do, raw and unprocessed. Amassakoul was our first attempt to master the studio, but in the end it was a bit of compromise, thanks to our inexperience. Aman Iman was a more mature process, and I think it shows.
How much of the material on Aman Iman is new? How much is based on traditional material? How much has been in your repertoire for years?
The songs on Aman Iman were written throughout the last 25 years. Songs like “63” and “Tamatant Tilay” are very old, from the early 1980s. Others like “Cler Achel” are only a few years old. There's a traditional core to all our music, but none of the tunes are specifically based on traditional music.
What were some early Western musical influences, other than Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin? Why do you think you connected with those artists, and did you hear any African influence in their music?
Basically, we're all individuals and we all like different music. For example, my taste is for quieter acoustic music. I'm a big fan of country and western, and of artists like Don Williams or Johnny Cash. Others in the band like heavy rock or hip-hop. It's a big soup of different musical influences really. There are some bands like Santana or Dire Straits that were almost universally popular amongst all of us young Touaregs living in exile in the 1980s. We owe a lot to Santana, for example. He taught us a lot about what you can do with a guitar. It seems to me that all rock music has an African gene in there somewhere. Don't you think?
How was your experience at the WOMAD Summer Camp this year in the UK? How easy is it, really, to teach others to play in the Tuareg style?
It was strange because I've never done anything like that before. Basically it was just myself and Andy Morgan, our manager, in a room with about 20 guitarists of different abilities for a whole day. I tried to teach them the principals of how we tune the guitar, and how one string is always the drone, whilst the melody is played on the upper strings. It was very interesting, and it even taught me something about my own music!!
How would you say the Tuareg guitar style differs from other Mali musicians like Ali Farka Toure? Does guitar even figure into traditional Tuareg music, or is it mostly played on ngonis and other instruments?
I think the difference between the Touareg guitar style, and that of other non-Touareg musicians like Ali Farka or Afel Bocoum, is that our style has a very strong element of traditional Touareg music in it, and also plenty of Arabic and Berber music too. This gives it a different shade. But to the uneducated ear it might sound very similar. There's nothing strange about this, because the Touareg and the Songhai have always shared the same geographical space. We're neighbours and culturally we're quite close too. But you have to realize that the guitar is a very new instrument, not only for the Touareg, but for all the people of Mali. It was really Ali Farka Touré who pioneered the idea of playing traditional melodies, which had always been performed on the ngoni or the kora or whatever, on the guitar. We all owe a lot to him.
How many other groups in Mali/Niger/Libya do something similar to yourself? Do you know Group Inerane, who just got a North American release [on Sublime Frequencies]? What do you think the differences between the two of you are?
Oof, there are hundreds of groups now. The Touareg guitar style was invented by Ibrahim and Inteyeden essentially, but now it's played all over the desert. All the young Touareg who play songs on the guitar owe something to them. But this is great, and all of these groups have their own particular approach and style. I haven't heard Inerane's CD so I can't really talk about it. But there are other great groups from Niger and Mali, like Tarbiat, Toumast, Etran Finatawa and the young Tamekrist from Kidal. Hopefully there will be room for all of us in the end.
Is this the first Tinariwen album to feature translated lyrics? If so, why?
Our manager Andy felt it was very important to translate the lyrics this time round, to give people a sense of what we're singing about. Communicating our message is a constant obsession for us, and it's not always easy to do. Even translating the lyrics was very difficult, because there are poetic riches in the original that just can't be conveyed in a translation. We did our best. There were lyric translations on Amassakoul, but this time round we devoted a lot more time to getting it right. But there's still a lot of work to do. It's almost like a project in itself.
Do you think the current rebellion will last as long as the one you took part in? What are the core issues? Do you think they will be easier or more difficult to resolve?
This outbreak is very different from the one that we were involved in, in the early 1990s. Back then Mali was ruled by a very corrupt military dictatorship, and the Touareg had absolutely no voice in government whatsoever. Our home region, around Kidal, was a military no-go zone at the time, abandoned and discarded by the central power in Bamako. So we had everything to fight for, and very little to lose.
This time the conflict is much more complex, with different opinions and different points of view even inside the Touareg community. The basic aims are the same: to get the government to respect the promises that were made in the 1994 National Pact, which are all to do with treating the Touareg fairly, respecting our culture and our specific lifestyle, and investing in our region, especially in terms of education and water infrastructure. The new rebel movement, the ADC, really just wanted to focus the government's mind on the task in hand, and they felt that they needed to do something quite dramatic in order to achieve this.
But now that the new Algiers Accords have been signed, there is a path to peace. The fact that some people are still out there taking hostages and attacking military outposts is all part of this complex situation. But most of us want peace, so that we can concentrate on development.
Do you think a Tuareg homeland is ever possible, or at least autonomy from Mali and Niger? How do you think uranium and oil development will effect this?
I don't think a Touareg homeland is possible at the moment. The central governments are too strong, and they have too much backing from outside. Also, the Touareg themselves don't have enough unity for an independent state to work. But no one knows what the future holds. It's in our interest to be strong and united, because the mineral wealth of the desert will make it a more and more attractive place to external powers, both political and commercial. We don't want to end up like the Ogoni people in the Niger delta. We have to defend our birthright, but it's not easy.
Do you anticipate any problems entering the U.S. after Tuareg rebels attacked a U.S. aircraft in Tinzaouaten last September?
Strangely enough, we've never had any problem getting entry into the USA. I don't know why. I think that the US is trying to be friends with Mali, which it sees as one of the rare Islamic countries that isn't particularly hostile. But the little incident at Tinzaouaten hasn't changed things.
What do you miss most about the desert while you are on tour?
Everything: friends, family, the peace, the solitude, the quiet. When we arrive back in the desert, we're like fish finally being thrown back into the sea. We can breathe again.