Malian guitar heroes and psych-rockers Tinariwen have one of the most dramatic histories in music. Formed at the tail-end of the 1970s in the southern Sahara, this collective of musicians were also militant rebels who, after receiving training in Libyan camps, took the separatist fight of their Tuareg people to the Malian government.
Having long since been considered the voice of their people, Tinariwen rose to global acclaim a decade ago and have spent much of the time since taking their dusty, politically charged sound around the globe. In February 2012, their recognition hit new heights as fifth studio album Tassilli won a Grammy. Yet the fight for their people has never been stronger or more important. The Tuaregs recently declared an independent homeland in northern Mali which has since been met with much resistance. As dedicated to their music as they are to their struggle for independence, Tinariwen are the ultimate rebel rockers.
One of many turning points in Tinariwen’s career came when the band members decided to leave the military and devote themselves to music full-time following the Tamanrasset Accords peace agreement of 1991. At first the band’s appeal was local, initially impacting Tuareg communities but then spreading throughout the Sahara region and later Africa as a whole. As international interest came beckoning, Tinariwen began performing in London, Paris, New York and beyond. Their debut album The Radio Tisdas Sessions garnered more support and the band thus entered a period of intense global interest. In the last ten years Tinariwen have played all around the world making notable appearances at festivals like Glastonbury, WOMAD, Coachella, Roskilde and Festival In the Desert in their Mali homeland. 2004’sAmassakoul, 2007’s Aman Iman and 2009’s Imidiwan highlighted their unique sound which, when merged with their near mythical back story, has made them one of the biggest forces in world music today.
Tassili, released in mid-2011, saw the band put down their electric guitars and return to the more natural acoustic sounds of their desert home. Only a few months after the album won the band a Grammy, Tinariwen finished off their spring world tour with a show at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. With iconic front man Ibrahim Ag Alhabib back in Mali defending his newly independent home, the rest of the band filled in to put on one hell of a show. Wearing their usual headdresses and long, colourful robes, the lack of the band’s leader was tangible as they rallied through the show’s opening section with tracks taken from their earlier albums. But the band soon settled in and the energy was ramped as they hit their stride, proudly rolling out their inimitable fusion of acoustic and electric guitar work.
Pieced together with funk-laden basslines and indigenous percussion, their sound was as intoxicating and modern as it was spiritual and traditional. Having already provided the support on the night, José González joined Tinariwen on stage to sing the English sections of Tenere Taqqim Tossam, supplied on record by TV on the Radio. Following a climatic ending in which colossal guitar licks and powerful vocal performances prompted scenes of sheer adulation from an increasingly rapturous crowd, a visibly humbled John Snow appeared onstage to present the band with their Grammy and Songline awards for Best World Music Album and Best Group respectively. It was a fitting end to a joyous occasion to see such a respected journalist and commentator in genuine awe of both Tinariwen’s musical and political efforts. Speaking to CRACK from his home, Ibrahim gave an insight into what it is like to represent an entire culture with your music, and the responsibility that goes hand in hand with that.
First things first, you must have been delighted to win a Grammy Award?
Yes, it was great news for us. We’ve been touring the world for ten years now and to get this Grammy is a kind of recognition for our work. And this is good for the Tuareg culture also, because it pushes it in the American media which raises awareness.
Do you know much about the people you were up against in the Best World Music category? Or the other categories for that matter?
Our manager told us about the other acts in the world music category. Of course we know Toumani Diabate and Femi Kuti as they are great African artist as well. But we didn’t know anything about the artists in the other categories I’m afraid.
Was the feeling of winning marred somewhat by the fact that you were in exile at the time? Or did that give it an even more special feeling?
We were not really in exile. At the beginning of 2012 a new rebellion raised in Mali, a lot of our people and families needed to leave the villages and the country because they were afraid of the army. Tinariwen have chosen to go on tour to make the world aware of our problems in our country.
Was the return to more stripped back, acoustic musicianship on Tassilli a deliberate return to basics following the last ten years of global acclaim?
Yes, we wanted to present the way in which we used to make music in our lands before touring the world. So we just recorded our music outside in the desert, around a campfire, with a few friends. This is where we feel is the best place to make our music as this is where it originated from.
Does recording in the comfortable surroundings of the desert help breed creativity amongst the band?
For sure. There were no restrictions on time or anything. Everything was set up so we could record day time in the tent or during the night outside. The silence, the nature and the blanket of stars above your head is great for inspiration.
What problems does recording in the desert present?
The only problem is the wind and also getting electricity. But everything else is great. Just perfect.
Were you proud to show off your homeland to TV On The Radio when they joined you for a session in the desert?
Yes, we always try to bring our friends to the desert because this is the experience for people in terms of understanding our music and our culture. We don’t talk a lot, so it takes time to understand our rhythm of life. Kyp and Tunde totally understood this, and they really enjoyed being part of the process out in the desert.
Is the fight for the Tuareg people still strong today? Has you resolve diminished over the years at all?
This year is a special year. Although the first rebellion started in 1963, we have never been as strong as the rebellion has this year. The MLNA is controlling 2/3 of Mali in the North, and we need to stay strong and fight for our autonomy, we want to find a deal with the international community and with the Malian government.
Do you consider yourselves to be global ambassadors for the Tuareg people and their plight? If so, do you feed off that responsibility?
We are because we are the best known Tuareg band around the world. So we need to use this chance to talk about and share the experiences of our people and culture.
How do you acclimatise to bustling cities like London, New York and Paris when you are on your travels?
It is very difficult for us; it is like a ‘military mission’. The good moments are when we are on stage or off in the countryside, but travelling, planes, hotels, food are just some of the things that are really difficult for us.
Are you proud that you are spreading the sound of your homeland around the world with integrity?
We are not proud; for us this is our mission to do this, this is a question of life for our people and our culture and we simply must do it.
Would you say your message is more musical than political?
Our message is about who we are as people. We are doing music that comes from our ancestors with electric guitars, but with the lyrics, the rhythms and the ambience from our heritage. So we are musicians first, but the voice of our people at the same
Do you plan to keep the band touring as long as possible, or will moving back home for good remain the ultimate goal?
We need to come back to take care of our families, but we will be back on tour in June in the USA, so we don’t have a lot of time home. This is sad, but sometimes you need to make a choice …
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Words: Thomas Jones