All was quiet in room 509 when I turned up with my bottle of Jura whiskey. Tinariwen’s sound engineer Jaja was watching a vampire movie on TV. Elaga, their rhythm guitarist, was sitting at a small darkly varnished table eating pasta from a Styrofoam carton. Said the percussionist was lying on his bed, delving through the archive of photos and recordings on his LG mobile, keeping his own counsel as he usually does.
As I entered I saw Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Tinariwen’s iconic founder and frontman, standing by the window. He looked better than he had done that morning, when the back pain that had been plaguing him on the overnight flight from Seattle, depriving him of sleep or comfort, gave him the aura of a hungry ghost. His hair was still standing crazy in a 240-degree arc around his head; grey-black, wild, electrocuted. His features were still creased and haggard, with those small round eyes staring out in a half-daze. But at least he was walking around now and engaging a little in what was going on. I told him I’d bought him a present and he thanked me with a mumble, a wan smile and averted eyes. I stepped into the bathroom to have a smoke out of the window, looking down into one of New York’s countless dark back alleys with its morbid machine-like hum.
Emerging from the bathroom I sat down at the table and poured myself a shot of whiskey. Ibrahim remarked that this whiskey didn’t taste like the others. I agreed, explaining that it came from an island called Jura, just like the name on the bottle. I launched into an enthusiastic eulogy of Scotland’s west coast; the rain, the raw beauty, the glassy sea, the islands floating off into the horizon. Ibrahim told me that he liked rain. It didn’t bother him at all.
“And there are whales,” I continued, “Do you know about whales?” I had a distinct feeling that I was bothering him with my insistent questioning but the whiskey made me talkative so I just blustered on. Ibrahim sat looking at me with his tired grave eyes and said, “the ones that jump out of the water?” He made a snaky jumping motion with his hands. I didn’t feel like explaining the difference between dolphins and whales and so I just answered, “Yes.”
We sat in silence for a while. Ibrahim’s head was propped on his hand and his eyes stared into the middle distance; infinitely sad detached eyes with their look of disconnected longing. Was his mind in that Saharan desert home of his, so far away? Or with his boy Haroun, who died recently from some unexplained illness? I couldn’t tell. I tried to imagine such a tragedy happening in my own life, and the thought alone was unbearable. The reality lurked in some incomprehensible place just beyond the frontiers of my imagination.
Ibrahim had been there. And now here he was in New York with his melancholy untamable presence. Malian soldiers, Algerian policemen and Libyan army sergeants have all tried to tame him by force. But even though they have all failed, theirs was perhaps the easier challenge. There are those of us who have tried to tame him with our friendship, our banter, our small talk or our love. We’re on a fool’s errand. I’ve learned, slowly and patiently, that one the kindest, gentlest men alive lives behind that gaunt and grave exterior. Being with Ibrahim is a lesson in simplicity and friendship stripped bare of possession or advantage. But don’t expect him to be your pal and to indulge you like an old mate. If you do, he’ll evade you like a jackal in the night.
I upbraided myself for attempting to analyze and comprehend this man. “He’s just a bloke,” I repeated to myself silently and unconvincingly, “who’s in pain and tired and a little melancholy.”
He asked after my son Alfie. “He must be big now,” he mused in his quiet croak. I answered kindly, yet awkwardly. Then I managed to get to my feet and announce that I was off back to my hotel and bed. I said goodnight and Ibrahim answered, “goodnight Andy.” As I reached the door of the hotel room and opened it, Ibrahim called out again, “Andy?” I turned round and looked at him. “Goodnight. See you tomorrow,” he said, looking straight at me. That final parting was touching and unexpected. It was as if Ibrahim was saying, “Sorry I couldn’t really talk to you, but I’m glad you’re here. Forgive me. That’s how I am.”
As I passed from the cool air-conditioned hotel lobby into the sweltering soup of the New York night, the city hit me with its monstrous clammy roar. It was like a machine with a trillion cylinders that had passed breaking point long ago, but somehow managed to roar on regardless. Anyone from a quiet peripheral part of the world might possibly bear this Nuyorican assault in the cool of autumn or winter. But now, in this summer month of record-breaking heat, the atmosphere was pulverizing, suffocating. Walking down Park Avenue in a jet-lagged sweat, I was seized by sudden panic. The dense swelter, the inhuman throb tightened around my chest like some instrument of torture. I felt like I was about to faint but a kind-hearted troop sergeant in my head took control, calmed me down, and urged me on. I reached my hotel and read Maugham with intense captivation. The noises of the New York night outside my window were savage – sirens, horns, engines, air-con, generators, beeping, honking, whistling, cooing, groaning, blasting, roaring. I sank into sleep while an intense argument brewed up on the sidewalk outside my window. “You fucking punk you fuck punk racist arsehole…!!!” And so on. Happy New York slumbers.
This was supposed to be a promo trip occasioned by the release of Tinariwen’s new album ‘Tassili’. But it didn’t feel like a routine junket. I managed Tinariwen for six years until I gave up showbiz to concentrate on writing full time eighteen months ago. I hadn’t seen them for a year. Driving from JFK through the bad dream of the Bronx, the alphabet soup shop-signs of Harlem, a place which reminds me so much of Tottenham in north east London, and the canyons of mid-town Manhattan, I contemplated the philosophical dilemma that this sky-lacerating city, full of what the poet Lorca called “geometry and anguish” presented to people like Ibrahim, for whom peace and solitude are as essential as food and air.
Not that New York can phaze Tinariwen any more. After all, it’s their sixth or maybe their seventh visit to the city. I’ve lost count and so have they. They’ve been touring the world for ten years now, taking their dusty skeletal guitar licks to the four points of the compass, spreading the gospel of a people who still cling against all odds to a desert which others are content to call a good for nothing wasteland. For them, the Sahara their home, their soul, the source of their pride and their inspiration.
Five CD albums, starting with ‘The Radio Tisdas Sessions’ back in 2001, and ending with ‘Tassili’, which was released last August, have earned Tinariwen an enviable global reputation, built on a bedrock of raw guitar, pentatonic melodies and rolling rhythms. Tinariwen’s unique sound feels part of the mythology and archaeology of the blues and rock’n’roll, but in fact it was born it its own space, and developed according to its own rules, out in the isolation of the southern Sahara during the 1970s and 1980s. The music itself has been given an almost fantastical allure by the myths and stories surrounding the band, the real McCoy rebels, born in tents out in the desert, trained in Libyan camps in the 1980s, who once strode into battle against the Malian army with a Kalashnikov on one shoulder and a guitar on another. The truth of course is subtler, deeper and infinitely more fascinating. But music and myth have seduced fans the world over, including an ever-growing list of star rockers that includes Robert Plant, Tom Yorke, Mick Jones, the Animal Collective, Metallica, Flea, Santana and the Henry Rollins.
Most of these names mean little to Ibrahim or the rest of the band. It’s not that they feel superior or indifferent to their fellow musicians’ praise, it’s just they haven’t heard of most of them. For Tinariwen, as for the Touareg in general throughout most of their troubled modern history, isolation has been both a blessing and a curse. They can’t reel of the names of tracks on ‘Exile On Main Steet’ or ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ but I’m certain that if Ibrahim had been living in Paris, London, or New York, during the past meteoric decade, he would have succumbed to the pressure long ago.
In fact, Ibrahim recently left the tiny village of Tessalit in northeastern Mali to go and live in the surrounding countryside, in the valley of the oued Affara, very close to where he was born fifty-one years ago. There he helps to tend his animals, mostly goats, and grow vegetables. His good friend Kay Kay lives nearby. Both Ibrahim and Kay Kay are old ishumar, the name given to the young Touareg who left their homes in the southern Sahara in the sixties, seventies and eighties and went into exile in Algeria and Libya to seek their fortune and join the rebel movement. In the early 1990s they fought an armed rebellion against the central governments of Mali and Niger, to reclaim ownership and governance of their ancestral lands, to defend their language and their culture and to fight for the right to live by their own ancient laws in the way their fathers and forefathers had done for centuries. That’s a pretty way of putting it I admit but it covers the essentials. The reality of the Touareg struggle is complex and testing and the fight is still very much alive today.
Nowadays, Ibrahim, Kay Kay and many other members of their generation seek the peace of their own gardens and herds in the vast Saharan landscape. I’ve been to oued Affara and the undisturbed quiet and solitude of the place is so deep and pervasive you can almost touch it.
In the last couple of years, the Sahara has been cursed by new demons: mafia kidnapping and extortion masquerading as Islamic fundamentalism, drug and people smuggling, profligate corruption and exploitation of mineral resources. It’s been put about that Tinariwen were forced to decamp from their home in Mali and travel about six hundred miles north eastwards to the region of Tassili in southern Algeria, near the town of Djanet, to record their new album because the presence of an Islamic fundamentalist militia affiliated to AQMI (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) between Tessalit and Kidal, the capital of the far northeast of Mali, made it too dangerous for foreigners to visit that area.
Ibrahim attributes the decision to other reasons entirely. “I know the Djanet region very well and it’s a very peaceful place,” he says. “It’s not like at home in Tessalit where even if you go off somewhere, your friends will follow your tracks and find you. I spent lots of time in Djanet, going there as an ishumar. We always had to hide because we had no papers and we were looking for work. I remember lots of things, things that were hard. It was an adventure you know…”
Hard up against the Libyan border, Djanet was a crossroads for migrating Touareg men during the 1980s. It was the first place where they had any hope of getting news of home, after months, maybe even years, working clandestino in Libya. Ibrahim had originally intended to record the new album with Mohammed Ag Itlale aka ‘Japonais’, an erstwhile ishumar brother-in-arms, member of Tinariwen and poet of great renown, who now lives in Kidal. But Japonais has his own demons to fight and wasn’t available for the recording, so Ibrahim went off to Djanet with five members of Tinariwen, determined to nail down the simple sound and poetry of ishumar adventurerssitting around a campfire, sharing cigarettes, stories, songs and a guitar. This had always been the context in which Tinariwen’s music was heard before they added bass and percussion and went global. It’s bottled to perfection on ‘Tassili’.
A few days later Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe from the New York band TV On The Radio arrived at Djanet airport. They were picked up in a Toyota 4×4 Landcruiser by Eyadou Ag Leche, Tinariwen’s bassist and driven through the Saharan night to the campsite / bush recording studio. Eyadou played havoc with his guests’ nerves by travelling down the un-surfaced desert tracks without any headlights on, an experience akin to riding a bucking bronco in pitch darkness at 70 miles per hour. Then, the next morning, Kyp and Tunde awoke in the epic splendor of the Saharan and it fairly robbed them of their breath. Nothing surprising there. The desert has the same effect on almost everyone who wakes up in its bitter cold dawn, or goes to sleep under its million glittering stars.
One of Ibrahim’s greatest pleasures is showing off his beloved desert home to strangers so having TV On The Radio around for the recording was a pleasure. “Everything came naturally,” he told me enthusiastically. “When I found a tune or a pattern on the guitar, Kyp would find something that went with it. Or if he found something, Eyadou just followed him. It was great. They became friends very quickly. We didn’t even have to talk that much.”
Words carry a long way in the deep hush of Ibrahim’s desert valley. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why he doesn’t use them that much. On this visit to New York, his tortuous back pain prevented him from venturing out much, except to fulfill band obligations, but he still could feel the city’s crush and frenzy. I reminded him that he once spoke to me about arriving at Paris Orly airport for the first time ten years ago and the general impression of fatigue and exhaustion that his first glimpses of western ‘civilization’ left with him. I asked him how the atmosphere of New York compared. “Well, I’ve understood many things,” he answers. “It’s as if, for me, it’s dirty here. That’s what works here. My village is a completely different world.”
Ibrahim doesn’t denigrate or criticize easily, so I found his stark use of the word ‘dirty’ fascinating. I decided that he was using it in the same way that Johnny Cash uses it in the song ‘Hurt’, when he refers to ‘my empire of dirt’. The exhausted frenzy of modernity, ambition, career and monotonous hedonism, that’s Ibrahim’s ‘dirt’.
Tinariwen’s performance at the Highline Ballroom in the old meatpacking district of the lower west side is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen plenty. They’re sharper, nimbler, less reserved and more self-confident, even as a five piece, without the visual stimulation of Hassan, their dancer and vibe master, or female backing vocalists. Said and Eyadou lock down and play like a soul-revue rhythm section, nailing their complex dialogue breezily and effortlessly. Abdallah spreads desert honey, like the Saharan pin-up that he is. Elaga stands stock still as always, his ker-chink slicing the air like the best James Brown or Lee Perry rhythm guitar.
Ibrahim battles through the show, smiling only once. His grave immobile presence is like a challenge to the hip bubbling New York crowd. To do what? To imagine a simplicity and a silence that their city will never know, but which, to Ibrahim, is the be-all and end-all. When he takes his acoustic guitar and sings a solo song, his voice parched, desiccated, otherworldly, the hubbub abates and splutters, and the imagination takes over. It almost feels as if, for just a few minutes, Ibrahim’s challenge has been accepted, the dirt has been wiped away and endless silence of the desert has descended on us all.
Andy Morgan. (c) 2006