Tinariwen - deserting the blues


Robert Plant says that listening to their music is like dropping a bucket into a deep well. Taj Mahal, when he first heard them, felt like he had come home. Tinariwen are getting used to such tributes. Appreciation for their blues from the southern Sahara has been picking up momentum over the past five years.


Billy Kelly, the promoter behind Glasgow’s Big Big World festival and, typically, one of the band’s early champions, said of their appeal that they communicated something. What it was exactly he couldn’t quite put his finger on but it was there all right.


Tinariwen’s spokesman, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, empathises with Kelly. Back in the band’s early years in the late 1970s and 1980s, they used to listen to second-, third- or even fourth-hand bootleg cassettes of American music which had little or no information on the cover. None of the band spoke English, so they’d hear this music and love it without understanding it all.


"Which is probably how a lot of people outside the desert are hearing Tinariwen now," he laughs.


Kelly sadly died suddenly at the beginning of February but the Scottish Arts Council Tune-up tour that he instigated and, as was his way, had organised almost to the degree that it only awaited Tinariwen’s arrival is going ahead next week in his honour.


Since Kelly began planning the tour last year, Tinariwen’s third album, Aman Iman – Water is Life, has been released and his predictions that this band of nomads would catch on are coming spectacularly true. Reviews of Aman Iman have been ecstatic and although the band have grown used to hard international touring over the past five years, the fact that the Scottish concerts form part of a European trek of some fifty-four dates is still cause for celebration.


"When we were younger and living in the desert, we often dreamed of travelling all over the world," says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni. "But those were the kind of dreams that you never really imagine might come true. When the group started we were concentrating on raising awareness amongst the desert people. Now we're doing the same throughout the world and we’re very happy to be doing so."


Tinariwen formed in 1979 in Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria, when guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, forced into exile by the Malian government’s expulsion of his people, the Touareg, got together with Hassan Ag Touhami and Inteyeden, two friends from the same part of the desert in north eastern Mali. As a youngster Alhabib had begun playing music on homemade guitars, plucking out traditional Touareg melodies and imitating the north Malian blues styles of Ali Farka Toure and Boubacar Traore. When he managed to buy a real acoustic guitar the trio started to play impromptu concerts.


"There was nothing really organised; it was just a group of friends passing the time or playing at weddings and round campfires out in the bush," says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni. "But the important thing is that they also started to write songs, which were very much about the current realities of their situation. This was a big change, and people fell in love with what they were doing very quickly."


In the 1980s and into the early 1990s, Tinariwen, by now expanded into a large group of friends with various roles, musical and non-musical, became embroiled in rebellion in Algeria. Some of them joined the Libyan army and installed in barracks near Tripoli, they would play for their fellow troops.


A collection was organised by the officer in charge and equipment bought. So in a special room in the barracks, the band, now joined by Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni and their resident poet and lyricist, Japonais, began recording their songs on cassettes for anyone who wanted to hear Tinariwen’s music.


"These cassettes would then be taken back to the villages and nomad camps out in the deep desert, and that's how the word spread," says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni. "Many people heard Tinariwen without having the slightest idea who they were, where they came from, what they looked like or anything like that. It was a very clandestine grapevine. And then after the Tamanrasset Accords brought peace in 1991, the band came out into the open and played some concerts in Mali. It was a big surprise for people!"


Now able to turn their attention to music full-time, Tinariwen began to play in all sorts of situations and for differing audiences. They played at official events in the Malian capital, Bamako, or in Tripoli. Other gatherings deep in the desert were more informal and called for mobile electricity generators, amps that could run off a car battery, or when motor transport wasn’t available – the camel is still the main means of transport for the nomadic community - small battery-powered practice amps.


The group’s big break came with the inaugural Festival in the Desert in the Sahara in 2001, after which word began to spread internationally. Robert Plant, who also appeared at the festival, was particularly enthusiastic, hearing connections with American bluesman including Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. Soon Tinariwen were touring and sharing festival stages with Plant, Taj Mahal and Carlos Santana, another high profile fan.


Their modus operandi remains the same as before. Band members write independently and bring their songs to the group, and they simply play them until they feel ready to be performed in public. And the international market opening up hasn’t altered their subject matter. Tinariwen’s songs still reflect the Touareg's’ lives, be they songs of love, loss, nostalgia, courage, identity, unity, peace, development or – a recurring theme – exile and the emotional pain it creates.


"We call that pain 'assouf,'" says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni. "Assouf is a very important word in the Tamashek language. It means nostalgia, longing, loneliness or separation. And it also means everything that is beyond the campfire, out there in the darkness of the empty desert.We believe very much in the spirit world, and the spirits who inhabit the desert are often known collectively as the Kef Assouf, the people of the darkness. There's a song on the new album called Assouf and it expresses the feeling very well. In fact, assouf is close to the word 'blues'. It means almost the same thing."


Singing the blues doesn’t preclude their audience having a good time, though. "Oh no, if people just want to listen and dance, then that’s entirely fine with us," says Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni. "Essentially what we want to put across is a feeling of joy, of happiness and of curiosity about the desert, about the Touareg and about all the problems that exist in the Sahara. If that curiosity then turns into a will to find out more among the audience, or even to travel to the desert and make real contact, then I think we have done our job."


From The Herald, March 2006


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