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Tinariwen: Behind The Guns And Guitars
Ben Hewitt , August 24th, 2009 08:24

Ben Hewitt talks to rebel rock guitarist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni

Guns and guitars: it's a sexy and snappy headline that's sure to have the most hardened of tabloid hacks drooling. But for African blues rockers Tinariwen, it doesn't even begin to cover their incredible story. Their founding members were inspired to make and learn their own crude instruments following the brutal repression of their Touareg ancestors by the ruling Mali elite in the early 1960s. A decade later, the Touareg people were hit again by a devastating drought that nearly destroyed their nomadic life permanently. Throw in lengthy spells of unemployment, homelessness and military training courtesy of Colonel Ghadaffi, and the macho swaggering of Liam Gallagher and police-magnet antics of Pete Doherty seem rather lightweight.

With such a rich history, it would be easy to forget the music, but during their 30-year career Tinariwen have become one of the most important and innovative Tuareg bands. Their fusion of the traditional music of their ancestors with Western influences has earned them a dedicated following, and with a slot on the Pyramid stage at this year's Glastonbury festival as well as the release of their fourth album Imidiwan, they stand on the verge of their greatest mainstream success yet.

We caught up with guitarist and vocalist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni to discuss the difficulties of being a rebel rocker, the reluctance of Western audiences to embrace African music, and their shiny box-fresh trainers.

You recently played the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, which is one of the world's most famous festivals. How was it? What did you make of the festival? Were you surprised by the support of the crowd?

AA: "The concert went well thanks. We were a bit nervous beforehand, because the atmosphere behind the main stage is very efficient and very 'serious'. And we were relieved went it had finished. But I wasn't surprised by the crowd. It's the third time we've played Glastonbury, and we seem to be moving up the ladder each time. And each time we have a good crowd, some of whom even seem to know our music . . . which is great! Maybe in ten years we will play on Saturday evening on the main stage!"

You've just released your new album, Imidiwan: Companions, as well. Are you pleased with it? How would you describe it in relation to your previous work?

AA: "I think Imidiwan is a faithful record. It's a good rendition of our sound at its most natural and most 'easy', so I'm happy with that aspect for sure. But it was a difficult album to make. We wanted to record in the desert because that's where we feel most relaxed and happy.

"But it's also where we're most distracted. We're like a herd of animals in the desert, always wanting to go off left and right, each one to mind his or her business. Jean-Paul the producer always had to herd us back into the studio to make music. Well, I'm exaggerating a bit maybe, but there was some of that for sure. But I am happy how it's turned out. After I recorded my songs ('Tenhert', 'Intitlayaghen' and 'Kel Tamashek') I wasn't feeling to good about them to be honest. But Jean-Paul did a great job and they've turned out very well."

Do you think the festival appearance and new record could mark the moment you start to get the recognition you deserve from Western audiences?

AA: "I really don't know. For some years now, people around us like our label and manager have been saying that, this time, Tinariwen will get the recognition it deserves. And yet we never really seem to make a great leap into the mass market. I think the audience has been getting bigger. We see that at our concerts too. Originally, it was clear that it was mainly fans of African music who came to our gigs. Now there's a greater variety, young and old, men and women, African music fans and rock fans.

"But that process has happened very gradually, bit by bit, album by album. I think that Aman Iman probably put the foot down on the accelerator a bit, but not in a dramatic way. And Imidiwan will no doubt continue in the same way."

Some of our readers won't be aware of the brutal but fascinating history of Tinariwen. How would you explain the cultural history of Touareg, and what kind of personal effect did it have on you? How difficult was life growing up?

AA: "This is a really big question. I suppose the important thing for me to say is that many years ago, at the time of my grand-father, or even his father, the Touareg lived a good life in the desert. There was more water then, and the herds were very big. My ancestors could travel to markets and salt mines to the north, west, east and south without too many hindrances. They were healthy, and relatively secure. There was music, poetry, festivities. That's the life I remember when I was young too.

"But then the droughts came in the mid 1970s and again in 1984, and this happy situation was completely destroyed. The animals died. The young people went into exile. Only the old, the women and the children were left behind. The desert was devastated. And the politicians in Bamako and Niamey didn't do anything to help. In fact they stood in the way of making the situation better. I think that's the real reason why the rebellion of 1990 -1 happened."

What was your first exposure to music? When did you know you wanted to be in a band? We heard an amazing story about Ibrahim Ag Alhabib making his first guitar, could you tell us about this?

"My first meeting with music was at home, in the camp of my parents in the Tamesna, which is a very flat and very arid desert area east of Kidal. Traditional music was everywhere . . . tindé drumming, singing etc. It was mostly women who played music. All of us knew traditional Touareg music before anything else, and it's that music that is still the foundation of what we do. But it wasn't until much much later, when I was fifteen or sixteen, that I started to travel and hear other kinds of music, in Libya mainly. And it wasn't until then that I even had a notion of what a 'band' actually was, and what it could do. The first real band I came across in fact was Tinariwen, who I met in about 1986 in a military camp near Tripoli. Various members of the band taught me how to play the guitar, and it just developed from there.

"I think it's only Ibrahim who can tell you his own story in detail. Simply, I think he just loved the idea of playing the guitar at a very young age and since the nearest guitar shop was thousands of kilometres away, he just made his own guitar out of a plastic water can, a stick and some fishing wire. But all the kids do that now. If you look at the front cover picture of 'Imidiwan' you'll see some young kids from Tessalit, the village where the album was recorded, with exactly this kind of guitar."

In 1980 some of you were invited by Colonel Ghadaffi to receive full military training. Was it tough? What kind of influence did it have on your music?

AA: "Ibrahim, Inteyeden, Diarra, Hassan, Keddou and the others recieved training in the early 1980s. I arrived on the scene a bit later, because I'm younger than them. My first experience of the camp was in 1985, or maybe it was 1986, I can't quite remember. The training was tough...just a basic foot soldier training. But by then, I think the Touareg had earned quite a bit of respect and the regime was easier than it had been in the beginning five years before. Also, by then, Tinariwen were established as a band and they were given quite a bit of freedom in the camp to write songs and play music. They had built there own rehearsal space and all the soldiers had contributed to a fund to buy them instruments and equipment.

"I don't think this whole military experience influenced our music, but it influenced us as people. Soldiers are trained not to give up easily, and we've learned that lesson. It's also made us used to living together to a strict time schedule . . . which is really what touring is all about."

Tinariwen are credited with being very innovative and different from other Touareg (and Mali) bands, largely down to the influence of electric guitars. How would you describe yourself as different to other Touareg and Mali bands sonically?

AA: "The real innovation of Tinariwen was the idea that Touareg music could be played on a very modern instrument like the electric guitar. But this 'revolution' had already occurred in other musical cultures around us. Ali Farka Toure had already introduced the acoustic guitar into Songhai music. Bambara artists like the Super Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs were already using electric guitars in Bamako. And in Morocco and Algeria, the electric guitar was already present in chaabi and rai music. So Tinariwen's contribution was just to the developement of Touareg music. As I said, I started hearing modern pop music in my mid teens, when I travelled away from my home in the Tamesna to Algeria and Libya.

"We're different from other bands in Mali because we're Touareg, and we have a special language, special rhythms, special poetry, and a special vibe. But it's harder to make out the difference between us and certain other Touareg bands. The fact is that the 'assouf' style of guitar music, which was invented by Ibrahim and Inteyeden, has now become universal throughout the southern Sahara. And you can hear it in the music of plenty of other Touareg groups like Toumast, Etran Finatawa and Tartit Ensemble. But each of these groups has their own particular style and approach. For example Tartit is very much more traditional than Tinariwen, with more emphasis on women's music and music from the Timbuktu area. Toumast is rockier, and more integrated with European rock styles. Etran Finatawa are a mix of Touareg and Woodabé, which is something different all together. And finally, I think it comes down the musicians themselves. Ibrahim is a unique songwriter, vocalist and guitarist. No one can rival him or be like him."

How about lyrically? What kind of reaction did you get singing 'rebel' songs?

AA: "When Ibrahim and Inteyeden were singing their songs in Algeria in the 1980s, they often got into trouble with the police. The Algerians were very sensitive about any song that spoke about Touareg culture and awareness because the Arabs in the north who rule Algeria are scared of a Touareg or a Berber opposition movement. Both Ibrahim and Inteyeden were often stopped and harrassed by the police for singing their songs. And people who listened to Tinariwen at the time, whether it was in Algeria, Mali or Niger could get into trouble with the authorities. In the beginning there was also resentment from the older generation of Touareg, who thought that it was dangerous and counter-productive to 'provoke' the authorities with these songs.

"Music was the only way to spread the message in those days. You have to remember that there was no Tamashek radio, no Tamashek newspaper, no Tamashek TV in the 1980s or early 1990s. In other words, there was absolutely no way of speaking directly to the population, other than through music and songs. That's why the rebel movement realised, a bit late it must be said, the importance of Tinariwen and gave them the means to write songs and play their music from the mid 1980s onwards. People would come from far away and ask Tinariwen to record some of their songs onto a cassette, just using a ghetto-blaster and pressing the play and record buttons. These cassettes would then travel back to the camps throughout the desert, and be copied and copied. That's how the message spread."

Why do you think Western audiences are reluctant to embrace a non-Western act? Do you think it's because of the language barrier, or is it deeper than that - that your music is informed by a brutal and complex history that Western culture struggles to comprehend?

AA: "To be honest I don't really know. I think you have to be a westerner to answer that question. I know that for me, music is magical in the sense that its appreciation doesn't depend so much on language or culture. For example, I love the music of Bob Dylan. Most of the time I don't have any idea what he's singing about. But the power of his message is transferred to me simply by the melody, the way he plays the guitar, the tone of his voice. I imagine that this is what happens when westerners listen to Tinariwen. I hope so anyway!

"But I know that we have to keep in mind that we sing in an obscure and strange language, that our rhythms and melodies are strange for western ears and that the way we look is bizarre too. It's natural that all of these aspects will limit our potential in the west. People need to feel comfortable with their music. Despite all my exposure in recent years to all kinds of music, my favourite music is still Touareg music. So I can't blame westerners for liking their own music best. They might struggle to comprehend our history, but I also think that our story has played in our favour just because it is so strange, so different to a western mind."

Do you find it frustrating to be categorised as rebel music? The new album, for example, is much more complex than that, and not fuelled by 'rebel anger'; it's beautiful, sad, joyous and celebratory. Do you think people are doing you a disservice by only regarding the band in this way when there's so much more to you?

AA: "Yes, I think that is the case. Obviously the rebel movement was a very important part of Tinariwen's history, and it can't be erased just like that. But I think Ibrahim and Inteyeden always saw themselves as involved and separate from this movement, at the same time. Involved in the sense that they really did believe in it, and wanted to see it success. Separate in the sense that they had their own thoughts and feelings to examine and explore in their music. They were never just part of a propaganda system. I think that if you look at the lyrics of songs by Ibrahim or Japonais, this comes out very strongly. There's a lot of pain and ambiguity there. So poets first, rebels second, I think that's the way it was."

By the same token, do you find it frustrating when people always refer to you in the context of 'guns and guitars', when you only served six months of open contact; clearly it's only a very small part of your history and many of your songs deal with personal issues such as isolation, loneliness . . .

AA: "Once again you're right. We were always musicians first and foremost, soldiers second and of necessity. I think that the whole military part of our story does appeal to the westerners . . . because it's so different, so exotic, so 'real' maybe. But for us, it was an episode, nothing more. Life goes on, and life is much bigger and more complex than 'guns and guitars'. Our message now is intimately tied to the things we love and care for: the desert which is our home, and its people who are our family. We want to make the world aware of their beauty and their uniqueness, and of the problems that menace them on a daily basis. So 'guns and guitars' is just a minor part of who we are, nothing more."

Since 2001 you've continued to include new members in the line-up, some of whom won't have grown up at the same tumultous time as the older members. Is that ever a problem, or do you think it's important to keep including younger members to keep the band and its mesage fresh and up to date?

AA: "I think it's very important to include young talent in the band. It's only this way that it has a long-term future. I myself am half-way in terms of age between the older generation who founded the band (Ibrahim, Hassan) and the younger generation who came in when the band started touring Europe in 2001. I feel that the younger musicians bring skill, ideas and above all, energy. They're keener to look around, to listen and learn, and that can only be a good thing for Tinariwen.

"Of course, there's always a struggle between generations. Touareg society is no different in that respect than any other. I think sometimes the older generation feel that the the young have little notion of the struggles they had to endure just to play music, the anonymity, the poverty, the political and social pressures that existed in the 1980s. I think that's natural. If you look what the founding members went through in the 1980s, it just explodes your head!"

What do you think the future holds for Tinariwen? What are your aims and ambitions for the future? And how do you see the future of Touareg music in general?

AA: "I don't know what the future holds for Tinariwen. Only the Almighty knows that. But I hope we just continue to improve as musicians and songwriters and that we manage to keep our style fresh. The future of Touareg music in general is very very hopeful. There are so many new bands now, and some of them are getting opportunities to release their music in the west and to tour. That's a good thing. I think a wave is slowly building and I feel very positive about it."

Finally, when performing live, we've noticed you always have impeccably clean and bright trainers to go with your robes. Where do you get all these shoes from?

AA: "Ah my friend . . . you should see the shopping that goes on in Paris, and other places when we're on tour."