OCTOBER 26, 2009
The Nat Geo Music Interview: Tinariwen
Nat Geo Music Catches Up WIth The Guitar-Slinging Tuareg Rebels Who Rock The Saharaby Tom Pryor
Back in 2001 a small, homemade album recorded by a group of guitar-slinging Tuareg nomads from Mali began making waves among the world music cognoscenti.
The band was Tinariwen and the record was called The Radio Tisdas Sessions, and it was a revelation: spare, hypnotic guitar riffs underpinning trancelike, call-and-response chanting, all punctuated by minimalist handclaps and percussion with the occasional spine-tingling ululation thrown in for good measure. It had echoes of everything from Moroccan gnawaa music to Ali Farka Toure to the Velvet Underground, but was a sound all its own. It was rock and roll from the edge of the Sahara desert, and everyone who heard it was asking "just who are these Tinariwen guys, anyway?"
Now, nearly a decade later, nobody has to ask anymore. Tinariwen have toured the world many times over and shared stages with Robert Plant and the Rolling Stones, and even served as the musical inspiration for the last Coldplay album. Always a musicians' favortie, the group counts everyone from Bono and Carlos Santana to Radiohead's Thom Yorke and TV On The Radio among their fanbase. Tinariwen has also become a fixture on the international festival circuit, playing Glastonbury, Coachella, Roskilde, WOMAD and more, whilte their two follow-up albums, 2004's Amassakoul and 2007's Aman Iman have become touchstones for a new generation of international music fans.
Tinariwen's latest album, Imidiwan: Companions was released Stateside earlier this month, and gave Nat Geo Music the opportunity to talk to the group's iconic, founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who told us all about the unusual recording circumstances of the album, how his life has changed since the band's international success, and how to grow a garden in the Sahara desert.
Tell me about the title of the new record, Imidiwan? The word means "companionship" in the Tamashek language - why is that important to you?
Ibrahim Ag Alhabib: I chose the title "Imidiwan" because right now I'm more concerned with what brings people together, and creates loyalty and friendship between them, than what separates them and makes them fight each other. If I look over the long road we have travelled since we were children, I realize that it's been a story about friendship first and foremost. And that continues today. Tinariwen wouldn't exist if it was not for the hundreds of friends who have supported the band, and provided companionship to its members over the years... whether they be in the desert, in Africa, or in Europe. This album is dedicated to all those people.
Why did you want to record Imidiwan in the Sahara?
The desert is where I feel the most comfortable, the most at ease, the most relaxed. It's also where I'm inspired to create music. To be honest, I don't like spending to long away from the desert now. Well, that's to say, I still like touring and travelling and seeing different parts of the globe, but I also like to be at home. And in the desert there are a lot of people who can help us... by hiring us a house, by cooking, by playing music with us. We can't take all those people with us if we go and record in Bamako or Paris. And lastly, on the last two albums, Amassakoul and Aman Iman, we all felt that we had strayed a bit from our true sound. Radio Tisdas, our first CD was the closest to it, and that was recorded in the desert too. So it all made sense.
Is that why you brought Paul Romann to record the new album, the same engineer who first recorded The Radio Tisdas Sessions?
Yes, to follow on from my answer to the last question. Jean-Paul was the engineer on 'Radio Tisdas' and he's a veteran of recording in the desert, because he also recorded the first Festival in the Desert in Tin Essako in 2001, and the one in Essakane in 2003. I like working with him. He's very courageous and he takes time to get the best out of us, even if it means pushing us quite a bit. And as I said, yes we were trying to get back to our roots, to our sound. For us it means an atmosphere that is calm but exciting at the same time. Aman Iman has some great passages, and I like working with Justin Adams too. But I think we all felt that there was an overdrive, a strain in our sound on the album that isn't entirely us. We wanted to get the calmness back.
What were the recording sessions like?
The recording sessions were relaxed. Jean-Paul was there every day, working away. People would come and go, until late at night. The yard outside the house where the recordings happened were like a meeting place, with people chatting and eating there all day long. There were also quite a few people staying in my compound outside the village. I had to go and see my family often, so I wasn't always there, but Jean-Paul just worked on other [band members'] songs-Japonais, Abdallah or Hassan.
Did you actually record in the desert itself?
We did go out into the bush for about four days at one point. There was a big convoy of 5 or 6 cars, and we drove south of Tessalit to a place called Intedeyni. It's beautiful there, and very peaceful. Jessy captured some good film of the sessions and they're in the short film that came out with the CD. The bush sessions were successful I think, but there were a lot of us and it was a bit chaotic sometimes.
Were the recording sessions solar powered like The Radio Tisdas Sessions?
No, we depended entirely on diesel-powered generators I'm afraid. Maybe next time we'll be a little more modern about our power supply!
It feels like Imidiwan is very much about passing on Tamashek culture and language to the next generation. Is that correct? How important is that to you? What do you want Tinariwen to communicate to the next generation?
I don't know if this was a special priority on this album, but it is something I care about. I like the fact that Tinariwen has two generations, and that when we, the founders, get too old to tour and record, the youth can carry it on. That way it will become everlasting hopefully!
Do you consider yourselves activists or artists or both?
I'm a musician first and foremost. We were soldiers for a very short period of time, because we felt we had to be. But it was only a passage in our lives. Music was there before, and it was there afterwards. At the end of the rebellion, the government offered all of us jobs in the army or the police or the customs. But many of us said no, we wanted to be musicians and that's all.
Imidiwan also feels like the most emotionally complex Tiniarwen album so far. How has Tiniarwen grown or matured since the band first broke internationally?
Our core style is the same that it has always been. Abdallah tested out some interesting ideas on his songs, like the Mauretanian feel mixed with the traditional tindé beat on "Kel Tamashek". But Hassan and myself played in the same way we have always done. Having said that I think that the musicians in the band are fusing together in more subtle and special ways. We've been touring and recording together for so long now that it's inevitable. But maybe what you call maturity, I call calmness. I wanted the musicians to respect a special desert pace in the music, especially in the slower songs, and I think they do that. It's harder to play slow than fast sometimes.
What is "assuf"? What does it mean for the band, and for this record?
Assouf means nostalgia, homesickness. We've all felt it a lot, ever since the time of exile began after the first [Tuareg] rebellion in 1963. It's the feeling that is most important in our music. But it also means other things. It's like a pain that you can't see and can't touch, a pain that lives in your heart. It means loneliness and separation too. When I was living in Algeria and Libya in the 1980s and 1990s I felt assuf a lot, and that's when I wrote a lot of the songs I play today.
How has international success changed life for the members of Tinariwen? What kinds of things do you do when you're not touring and recording?
It may seem hard to believe, but our lives haven't changed very much at all. The big change I suppose is that we spend almost half the year away from the desert now, while we're touring. That's a big change. But it's also not such a huge change, because sometimes being on tour feels like being in the army! It's just a few friends living together on the road, sharing everything, depending on each other and looking out for each other. But back at home, my life has hardly changed. In some cases we have more money, but not much much more than before. We may have a 4x4 where we didn't before, or a house. But I still live in Tessalit, where I was born. And I don't want to live anywhere else. It's home.
Tell me about Tessalit itself - what is the town like? What is life like there?
Tessalit is my home town. I was born in a river valley not far from the village, and my father lived in the village. It's a place I like a lot. It's very very quiet. And there's plenty of water, because the water table is only a few feet below the surface. If you dig one metre in certain places you'll hit water. Because of this, there are some lovely gardens in Tessalit and you can grow all kinds of fruit and vegetables there. I have a garden with carrots, onions, beetroot, melons, mangos and more. Strangely enough, Tessalit used to be very popular with Tourists in the old colonial days, because it's on the main road from the north of Algeria via Touat, Reggane and Bordj Moktar to Gao. The only other member of the band who lives there apart from me is Hassan Abin Abin, the Lion. He has a house in the village next to the river. Life is very quiet there, very very quiet. Which is what I like now.
You've traveled all over the world now, have opened for the Rolling Stones and been cited as an influence by Coldplay - what does this kind of international recognition mean to other Tamashek?
I think it means a lot. Many of the artists who pay their respects to us are unkown in the desert, but others, like Santana, are heroes back home. So when we played with him in Montreux, it was a really really important moment. Many Tamashek brothers shared 100% of the joy we felt too. It felt like our culture had been rescued from obscurity in a way. I was very happy.
I saw Tiniariwen play in the U.S. earlier this year, and I noticed that the band's lineup often shifts between albums and tours. Why is that? How do you view Tinariwen - as more of a collective than a traditional band?
In the desert, everybody is always moving. That's our culture. It's very very hard sometimes to get together, or to stay in the same place. We need our freedom. So Tinariwen has survived because really almost every Tamashek musician in the northeast of Mali or the south of Algeria is part of Tinariwen. And if just two of them come together to sing our songs, that's enough for it to be Tinariwen. In the past, that's how our concerts happened. Hassan and Abdallah might perform in Bamako or Abidjan while I was hundreds of miles away in Tamanrasset or someplace. So I know that some people have been frustrated for example when I haven't been present on stage in America. But that's how Tniariwen has always been, loose and flexible. Otherwise we could never survive. I hope people understand that.
What do you think of all the other Tamashek bands that have sprung up in Tinariwen's wake?
I think it's great, how can it not be?
What do you want Tinariwen's legacy to be?
A beautiful free safe and welcoming desert.