ATinariwen radiates something strangely festive on the stage. Almost the entire Mali band has put on Tagelmust, a traditional veil turban, and has dressed in blue, yellow and pink robes. Hardly anyone in this country should be able to understand their lyrics, mostly sung on Tamaschek. However, Tinariwen’s distinctive blend of traditional elements and blues rock seems to mean something to everyone. Pieces like “Chaghaybou” or “Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim” are recognized after just a few tones and cheered loudly. Over the years the band has earned a loyal, international fan base.
Translated, Tinariwen means “deserts” – spaces that are of central importance for the band: as concrete, physical places in which their members grew up, live and sometimes also record their music. At the same time, deserts symbolize the cultural identity of the musicians as members of the Tuareg. Including the conflicts and problems that this partly still nomadic ethnic group faces in the region between Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya and Burkina Faso. Tinariwen has always placed the themes of home, political resistance and cultural self-empowerment in the foreground of her work.
Cassette tapes circulated in the region
Like many other Tuaregs, the founding members of Tinariwen in the mid-1970s were forced to leave Mali due to the political and economic situation. In Algeria, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Hassan Ag Touhami and Inteyeden Ag Ableline played at weddings, baptisms and other celebrations in the early 1980s. They later joined the Tuareg rebels and received training on weapons in military training camps in Libya. According to tradition, they started composing political songs about exile there. The music, which at that time was played exclusively with acoustic guitars, was aimed primarily at the Tuareg community. Cassette tapes circulated throughout the region.
After the peace agreements with Mali and Niger, Tinariwen withdrew from the armed struggle. “Since then we have devoted ourselves exclusively to music,” says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, guitarist and lead singer, who joined the band later. Tinariwen have now released nine albums and won the Grammy in 2012 in the “World Music” category. Numerous style-defining musicians from the West – Damon Albarn from Blur and the Gorillaz, for example, or Thom Yorke from Radiohead – are among her fans.
With “Amadjar” a new album was released in September. It was arranged and recorded due to the Malian security situation in Mauritania – in the desert, in just a few live takes and without headphones and effects. The Mauritanian griot singer Noura Mint Seymali has contributed to some of the songs. You can also hear the guitarists Cass McCombs and Stephen O’Malley; Warren Ellis from the Bad Seeds contributed subtle yet striking violin parts.
“Desert blues” – is it true?
Including prominent guest musicians from the West has a long tradition at Tinariwen: Tunde Adebimpe from TV On the Radio, Nels Cline from Wilco, Kurt Vile, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mark Lanegan were involved in the previous albums. Such collaborations are a matter of course for Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni. “As musicians, we all have the same roots,” he explains in an interview in Berlin. Often the guest musicians would be selected together with the producers after the basic structure of the albums had already been recorded by Tinariwen.
When Tinariwen is reported, words such as “desert blues” or “Tuareg rock” are often used. Such terms are obvious, as a relevant, sometimes culturalistic image is cultivated not only at concerts, but also through press releases, cover works and booklets. The band itself prefers the term “assouff”, what on Tamaschek – and the Portuguese saudade not unlike – “nostalgia” means. In view of the texts revolving around homeland, longing, loss and political marginalization, this is entirely correct.
At the same time, Tinariwen’s musical style is quite modern and transcultural. “When we returned to Mali from Libya and Niger, we wanted to create something new – something that hadn’t yet existed in the desert,” says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni. Anyway, cultural renewals and modernization are essential for social progress, says the 51-year-old musician. In terms of sound design, Tinariwen’s choice fell on the electric bass previously unknown to the Tuareg and on electric guitars. Younger bands like Tamikrest also use these instruments today.
Like the previous albums, “Amadjar” is characterized in its basic structure by the monotonous beat of the traditional Tindé drum and handclaps as well as call and response vocals. The powerful, sometimes eruptive electric guitars have often given way to more fragile figures on the acoustic. Many Tinariwen melodies are created when traveling due to influences from the way, says Ag Alhousseyni, who has also been a big fan of country music for years. Tinariwen is currently not making far-reaching plans for the future. The security situation in Mali is currently too delicate.