PARIS IN THE SPRINGTIME. It’s a stark contrast to Mali in the Sahara Desert of Northwest Africa from where Tinariwen, the Grammy-winning band I’m here to meet, originate. It gets even weirder when you see the nomadic Tuaregs play their music – a cinematic, guitar-driven blend of traditional African folk, Arabic pop and American blues that effortlessly evokes the desert in which they have lived most of their lives – in the schizo surrounds of David Lynch’s Paris nightclub Le Silencio, as I will later. But Tinariwen are used to dealing with incongruity. They’ve been making music for over 30 years, and the lineup has spread over two generations of these nomadic tribesmen since frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib founded the group in 1979.
At the time, there were no instruments available for him to buy – even if he’d had the money to do so. Ag Alhabib had to improvise. “The first time I saw a movie, when I was barely four years old, the hero was a singer and guitar player. So since then I’ve been attracted to music, first by the traditional flute and then by stringed instruments that I stitched together from tins and fishing wire,” he says, from Mali. Ag Alhabib wasn’t able to make the trip to France. He’s stayed home to take care of his family and to help refugees displaced by the latest in a series of Tuareg uprisings in a struggle for independence that stretches back several decades. This most recent rebellion began in January, and has actually succeeded in establishing a pseudo-state called Azawad – the name of the region Tinariwen are from.
The ongoing struggle meant that, for the 20 years or so before their ‘official’ debut album, The Radio Tisdas Sessions, in 2001, few people outside of their homeland had heard of Tinariwen, as the government had banned their music. Cassettes were secretly copied and circulated, but it was years before the band gained an international following.
Over the last decade, though – and particularly since the release of Amassakoul [The Traveller] in 2004 – there has been an outpouring of recognition, particularly in the U.S. Tinariwen have collaborated with numerous internationally renowned musicians, played the Kick-off Celebration Concert of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and won Best World Music Album at this year’s Grammy Awards for their latest LP, Tassili, which features guest artists including Nels Cline of Wilco; The Dirty Dozen Brass Band; and Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio. All this despite the fact that most of their fans (with the exception of other Tuaregs) are unable to understand any of their lyrics.
Eyadou Ag Leche, part of the second generation of Tinariwen (“Ibrahim actually played at my baptism”), believes the band’s appeal lies in its “very rich” music. “When we’re on stage, we play what we are and we try to connect with people as we are and bring them towards us,” he says.
Backstage in Rouen (the first venue for their French shows), Ag Leche – dressed in leather jacket and jeans – explains what it is to be a Tuareg. “The important thing with the Tuareg is the way of surviving, living every moment, being free in yourself and loving freedom for everyone,” he says. “We have hospitality and sharing and it’s a very open worldview. We live in the environment as well so it’s very rich in terms of its connection to nature.”
Their connection with nature is one of the most important aspects of Tinariwen (the name means “deserts” in Tuareg). They’re a nomadic people, so their relationship with the land is as much a part of their life as it is their music. They strive to live simply and elegantly in harmony with their surroundings. While that can be hard in one of the planet’s toughest environments, Ag Leche lays out its benefits. “It’s a land you have to have confidence in, because, in spite of the suffering, at the same time it gives us a lot of strength. So [with] life in the desert you can taste true life. You touch life, in fact. It leaves a lot of nostalgia when you’re not there.”
Tinariwen’s music is commonly described (by media outlets, at least) as “desert blues.” But Ag Leche explains the band have their own label for their style. “For us, blues is a beautiful name, a name that we respect, but it’s not necessarily what we’d like to call our music, because we’ve only been listening to blues for seven years and, in the desert, this ‘blues’ that we play existed a thousand years before Jesus; it’s very old. So we call our music ‘assuf,’ which means nostalgia.”
Ag Leche adds that their inspiration comes mostly from the “stars, nature and life in the desert,” rather than other artists. Anara Elmoctar, a childhood friend of Ag Alhabib who often travels with the group, describes the frontman and principle songwriter as someone who is deeply connected to his environment, acutely aware of his surroundings. He was with Ag Alhabib when Tinariwen’s leader got his first real guitar. They had gone round to an Algerian friend’s house, a man they visited regularly “to talk, joke around and drink tea. When his friend put down his guitar, Ibrahim would take it up and play. [Eventually], his friend realized that Ibrahim played better than he did, so he sold him the guitar for next to nothing.” He adds, “Ibrahim doesn’t just play the guitar. You can put any instrument in front of him and he’ll manage to make a sound with it – he’s a very good flute player as well.”
Elmoctar tells the story of how, one night in the desert, sat around the fire, a beetle was making a noise with its wings. Ag Alhabib started to accompany it on the guitar. Another time, he says, a bird was hanging around their campsite. As it sang, Ag Alhabib played along, slowly turning his instrument into the wind so the bird’s chirps would reverberate into the guitar.
“Sometimes,” Ag Alhabib says, “It feels as if I’m playing with the stars, as if they are my guitar strings.”
BUT DESPITE TINARIWEN'S OBVIOUS SPIRITUALITY and deep connection to their homeland, the band was born not out of some romantic vision, but out of violence and horror.
Almost 30 years ago, the group’s founding members, Ag Alhabib, Hassan Ag Touhami, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, and Inteyeden Ag Abil, came together in Libya. Muammar el-Qadaffi had promised the Tuaregs a land of their own. “We were a band of errant youth in exile, searching for a solution to our existence – because of the situation at the time, because of the distress of an entire people, especially young people like us – not knowing what to do with ourselves,” says Ag Alhabib.
It’s no surprise that they joined the armed resistance against the Malian government. Aged four, Ag Alhabib had witnessed the military execute his father. “After that I had a profound trauma,” he says. “It was very difficult for my friends and my family to console me.”
Ag Touhami recounts the barbarities he saw as a child. The army would poison wells, he says, kill animals and force people from their homes. At a very young age, he told himself that he would defend his people. In 1980, Qaddafi issued a call for all Tuareg men in the region to come to Libya to receive full military training. “We were freedom fighters,” says Ag Touhami. “[We were] fighting to liberate our territory – in order to combat the state, [and] these actions of corrupt governments that push us to the exterior.”
But Qaddafi’s promises proved empty. “Qaddafi had, at every turn, manipulated the Tuareg struggles in order to stop them,” says Ag Touhami. “Today’s struggle has more chance of succeeding because this manipulator is no longer around. We know that he never did us any good. He’s someone who manipulated us, who used us against other people.”
Elmoctar recalls the moment when Tinariwen chose music over weapons. “[Ibrahim turned to me and said], ‘Anara, the sounds of guitars reach further than the noise of bullets.’” Ag Alhabib, he says, had “the desire to never have to resolve problems with weapons again.”
Ag Touhami reiterates that message. “Right now you’re talking to me, you’ll speak of our people to the world, that’s our weapon,” he says. “You are in front of me right now asking me about our people, and Tinariwen’s collective goal is to spread the message of the Tuareg and to make it as audible as possible to as many people as possible.”
So Tinariwen continue their people’s fight for freedom, though Ag Alhabib qualifies how far they’re willing to go these days. “We support the resistance, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we will always support armed resistance,” he says. “We know the ravages of war. We do everything we can to avoid it. But we certainly feel a great deal of solidarity with our people.”
Since the coup d’état by the military, which took place in March, Mali has been thrown into disarray with no clear end in sight. The Tuareg have had impressive gains, most of which have been attributed to the fact that – with the fall of Qaddafi – many Tuareg rebels returned to Mali with the heavy weaponry the rebels had previously lacked, giving them the upper-hand while the state began to crumble. However, those weapons have also fallen into the hands of extremists groups in the North, who are thriving off the country’s instability. Ag Alhabib counsels that such groups’ attempts to control the area “will never go very far.” But, he adds “if that were to happen, it would be a real disaster for the history and the pride of our culture.”
There doesn’t seem to be a solution in sight. But Tinariwen take solace in the goal that Ag Touhami expresses. “The most important thing is that we be free in our own land, to invite our friends to our own land, that terrorism disappear from our lands, [and] that we be the masters of our own land.”
That’s why, Elmoctar says, Ag Alhabib isn’t with them in France. He could’ve gotten out of Mali and joined the band, but “[Ibrahim] is someone profoundly human who can’t stand to see people suffering. So at the moment when the events began, he saw all the suffering of the refugees who were crossing the border and decided to take his own goods and fill up his car with food for the refugees – he’s still continuing to do that.”
Backstage before the band’s final Paris gig, at La Cigale, we talk about the current struggle in Mali and the recent advances made by the Tuareg. Thibaut Mullings, Tinariwen’s manager, debates whether or not the rebels actually have control of Timbuktu, citing conflicting reports of the territory changing hands several times.
Maybe 15 minutes later, while we’re still on the subject, Elmoctar’s phone rings. “It’s my brother,” he says. “He’s a freedom fighter and is in Timbuktu now!”
They speak for a few minutes, then Elmoctar hangs up and announces “Timbuktu is liberated!” His joy is evident on his face; this is the closest their people have ever come to achieving what they have been struggling for for decades. But Ag Touhami provides cautious optimism. “The day [of liberation] will come,” he says. “Maybe not in my lifetime, but maybe in my children’s or my grandchildren’s lifetimes.”
TWO DAYS EARLIER, IN LYNCH'S CLUB, I’m reminded of just how far Tinariwen’s desire to publicize their people’s plight – and to use music to fight for the cause – has taken them. Le Silencio’s décor is pretty much what you’d expect from the surrealist American filmmaker; photos depicting bizarre scenes of highway construction, or destruction, provide the only source of light on the seemingly endless, winding staircase down from the inconspicuous black door on the street. At the bottom, there’s an eerie white noise blanketing the labyrinth of tunnels and passageways, all of which are painted black, except for one spectacular gold tunnel that opens up into the main room where the band is to play later. The photographer is waiting there. “Can you believe this place? It’s f***ing trippy, man,” he says. “Too bad pictures aren’t allowed.” The mere mention of the word “picture” prompts the club manager to bolt out of his chair: “No photos, no photos!” This cramped, super-artificial location is so wildly different to the infiniteness and intimacy of the desert that is vital to Tinariwen’s music and lifestyle. As if to reaffirm that fact, Said Ag Ayad, percussionist and singer, comes cruising down the hall and walks right into one of the deceptive mirrored walls.
The band is sitting around in the dressing room, laughing and smoking cigarettes while Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni plays an acoustic guitar. It’s time for one of the rituals Tinariwen observe to make themselves feel closer to home when they’re on the road. Backing vocalist Mina Wallet Sidati comes over and gives us some tea, which is brewed a number of times with a sweet blend of honey and mint. Ag Leche explained back in Rouen that tea breaks are sacred for the Tuareg, a moment of peace when, he says, “There’s no more fighting, everyone’s heads are calm and people feel close to the earth.” It was in such moments that the band first began writing and playing together in the early evening after the fighting had ceased. They would drink and play songs reminding them of the home they had been exiled from and which they strived to reclaim. And so they created their “assuf” music – a cathartic way of addressing their painful past, while finding redemption and hope amongst friends, family and of course, the desert.
Given their current status – both critical and financial – it could be a struggle for Tinariwen to hold on to their roots and traditions. Ag Alhabib is confident that they won’t change, though. “Not at all,” he says. “On the contrary I think. Today we have the means to live fully off our art, and we’re fully conscious of what that means. Our state of mind won’t change because that is who we are, and nothing will be able to come in between us and our artistic authenticity.”
Elmoctar agrees. “It’s completely impossible [that they will change],” he says. “They play their music as they live, there is no difference between their music and their daily life [and] their daily life has remained the same, it has never changed. It will never change. Nothing has changed within Tinariwen between their formation as a group and today.”
Perhaps as a way of making sure that remains true, Tinariwen recorded their most recent album, the Grammy-winning Tassili, on location in the Janet valley, camping in the desert of Southern Algeria through which the founding members had passed many years before. That involved shipping in hundreds of pounds of gear, cables and generators. After the gig, over a few beers, Intidao Ag Lamida – the guitarist who’s part of the younger, second generation of the band – explains why they went to so much effort. “We do a lot to try to reinforce [our culture],” he says. “And with music, one can return [to it].”
Ag Touhami says that the band’s main desire is “to live our authentic culture and to share it with others. We don’t want to resemble anyone and we don’t want anyone else to resemble us – we have a very, very strong respect for all other cultures, wherever they’re from, whatever language they speak, and we would just like other people to have the same respect for us.”
THE FRANCE SHOWS ARE PART OF A WORLD TOUR that will keep Tinariwen busy for much of the remainder of 2012 (they play Beirut in July). Ag Lamida says the band will definitely make more albums, but he doesn’t know when; they need to think about it and they usually decide last minute. A book by ex-manager Andy Morgan is in the works and Ag Lamida says the band have been thinking for a long time about doing a biopic (with actors playing the band members). They’re currently figuring out how to do it right – putting together a script, proper funding, and a production team.
One plan they’re all excited about is organizing a music festival in Azawad, which would bring various artists from the region together to celebrate their liberation and invite tourists to return to a peaceful land and share their culture. Of course, that’s dependent on Mali returning to some semblance of stability. For now, Tinariwen will have to continue to focus on spreading their message overseas. And throughout their shows in France, it’s clear they’re succeeding in that mission.
In Rouen’s Le 106 club, the band take the stage in their traditional colorful garb, including a taguelmoust (a variation of the turban) on each man’s head. Though it starts as a sit-down show, the contagious music quickly lifts the audience out of their seats and gets them dancing up front; there are even some local Tuareg in the crowd.
At Le Cigale in Paris later in the week, there’s a line forming three hours before the show starts; the crowd is buzzing with excitement and scalpers are using the demand to sell tickets for more than three times their original value. Inside, Ag Lamida and Ag Alhousseyni are on stage for the soundcheck, while tour manager Bastien Gsell is busy making sure everything’s in order. Alhousseyni takes a break as a television crew interviews him on stage and we head upstairs with Ag Lamida to the dressing room, where the rest of the band is lounging before the show. Ag Touhami is sitting, playing guitar next to Sidati, while Ag Leche is napping on the couch.
Ag Touhami hands the guitar to Ag Lamida and everyone kicks back as he plays, humming the song “Imidiwan Afrik Tendam.” We can hear the crowd start pouring in and it doesn’t take long before the place is packed.
When Tinariwen take to the stage, there’s an instant surge of infectious energy. The crowd is particularly animated tonight; some Malians jump up on stage, and proudly display the flag of Azawad while they dance. It’s here that you see what it is Tinariwen are trying to – and do – achieve with their music; there’s an overwhelming sense of belonging. Tinariwen transcend boundaries, bringing the audience together to experience a glimpse of desert life.
Ag Alhabib eloquently sums up the band’s aim: “Very simply, what we want is recognition for our people and our culture, to create a way of life that’s in perfect harmony with modern knowledge, and for our country to be a model for the rest of the world,” he says.
Tinariwen are still freedom fighters. And they are winning.