TINARIWEN – Sons of the desert

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. (c) Nadia Nid El Mourid

I first met Tinariwen in a tent on the wide stony plains of the Tamesna, sixty kilometres due east of Kidal in the far northeastern corner of Mali.  The date was January 6th 2001 and the occasion was the first Festival in the Desert.  It was my friendship with the French group Lo’Jo that had brought me there.  I was tired, dirty, and elated, floating in the strangely sharp yet magical ether of the Saharan atmosphere.   I had managed to miss the Festival’s official opening the day before, when Tinariwen had taken to the tiny concrete platform that passed for a stage to welcome a convoy of twenty-four 4×4 vehicles carrying the Prime Minister of Mali, four Ambassadors, and an ostentatiously tooled-up escort.  Everyone I spoke to confirmed that Tinariwen were the pied pipers of the region, a band of legendary renown, a band to know.   My instinct was to just let the flow of each succeeding moment carry me away, but a gnawing and neurotic desire to capture those moments for posterity, to maximise journalistic opportunities, led me to ask if I could interview Tinariwen.  A time was fixed, an act which in itself seemed disturbingly incongruous in that timeless place.

When the time came, I ducked under the red leather animal hide covers of a traditional Touareg tent and sat myself down gingerly on a sandy Technicolor floor mat.  The cool and dark space was filled by about seven men, sitting, lounging, cross-legged, squatting, unperturbed, relaxed and minimalist in their movements.  Some were turbaned, others were not.  There was Hassan aka Abin Abin aka the Lion of the Desert, Mohammed aka Japonais, Abdallah aka Catastrophe, Ibrahim aka Abaraybone, Kheddou and other extended members of the crew like Sweiloum, Diarra and Bigga.   They sat immobile like resting fighters, neither aggressive nor overly friendly.  Their calmness and lack of excess…excess talk, excess movement, excess belongings, excess emotion…flustered me.   A tea was being prepared with unforced ritual.  Tea drinking in the Sahara is emblematic of hospitality, friendship and the slow baked pace of things.  I set up my DAT nervously and then asked the dumbest but most obvious question available to the unprepared journalist, “How did it all begin?”   Long pause.   Mild panic.  Tinariwen remained ice cool.   Eventually Japonais began to answer the question in minuscule chunks of guttural and heavily accented French, each punctuated with the phrase “Est ce que tu vois ça?”or “do you get me?”, which sounded more like ‘Iskitiwassa?”   Those bafflingly oriental facial features, which are the source of his nickname, remained sharp and penetrating, Shogun-like, throughout.   Then after about a minute he motioned me to switch off my DAT machine and proceeded to confer with his brothers-in-arms, in Tamashek, the Touareg language.  A full-blown debate started to brew.  There seemed to be disagreements about dates, times, names and places.   Fifteen minutes later the discussion was still raging, and I was still sitting there, largely ignored, with my inactive DAT machine in front of me.  It was almost comical.

It later became clear to me that there were good reasons for this inauspicious start to our relationship.   This was one of the first interviews that Tinariwen had ever conducted and none of the group members had ever felt any great need to straighten out the facts surrounding the band’s genesis.  I was also later to learn, by the slow but ultimately more fruitful method of endless aimless chats over intense cups of bittersweet Touareg tea, that the tale of those early years comprises a complex drama of exile, wandering and the clandestino life, in which fact, memory and nostalgia are entwined like spaghetti in a bowl.

The key actor in that drama was Ibrahim Ag Alhabib.  His nickname ‘Abaraybone’ means something like ‘raggamuffin kid’ or ‘the scruffy tearaway who’s always playing in the dirt’.   During the first Touareg rebellion against the central government of Mali in the early sixties, Ibrahim’s father, a livestock farmer and mason by trade, was apprehended by a unit of the Malian army for giving succour to the rebels, and shot dead.  Ibrahim witnessed his dad’s murder with his own eyes.  He was only four years old.  Ibrahim then left the Adrar des Iforas region of northeastern Mali with his grandmother, and a single cow, the last of a once substantial herd, which the Malian army destroyed, and went into exile in southern Algeria.  The cow died on the way.   Whilst still young, Ibrahim became a wanderer, a survivor, travelling around Algeria and Libya doing odd jobs.  He spent a number years apprenticed to a carpenter in Oran, for example.  He also did a few stints in jail.  It was the quintessential academy of hard knocks education and survival was by any means necessary, or not at all.

In 1979, Ibrahim found himself in the southern Algerian desert oasis of Tamanrasset, a place favoured by exiled Touareg men at the time.  There he hung out with two other Touareg from the Adrar des Iforas region in Mali; Hassan Touhami and Inteyeden Ag Ableline.  A Malian friend of mine once described the kind of life they led as l’amitié autour d’une cigarette (friendship around a cigarette).   I can’t think of a better description.   Since boyhood, Ibrahim had been playing music on self-made bush guitars, which consisted mostly of a jerry can, a stick and some bicycle brake wire.  He’d pluck out traditional Touareg melodies, sometimes adding his own phrases and images to an age-old song, or he’d imitate the north Malian blues guitar style that was already beginning to blossom thanks to mentors like Ali Farka Touré, Boubacar Traoré and a mysterious character called Aziz, whom Tinariwen have often cited as an inspiration.  Ibrahim also owed an almost genetic debt to the undisputed granddaddies of all Sahelian guitar styles, the traditional griots with their hide and gut lutes, which the Songhai call ‘ngoni’, and the Touareg call ‘teherdent’.

Ibrahim would also chuck in other rag-tag influences that had accrued in his mind during his vagabond life: rai music which he’d heard in Oran, the radical new chaabi of Morocco, especially Nass El Ghiwane, who’s songs he can still sing verbatim to this day, non-aligned north African pop stars like Rabah Driassa, western pop stars like Boney M or Kenny Rodgers.  There was no musical mission, just a desire for solace, a means to distract the mind and pass the time.   In Tamanrasset Ibrahim saw his first ever acoustic guitar, and persuaded its owner to give it to him.  Together with Hassan, Inteyeden and two other women singers, Ibrahim formed a little band.   Its first name was very longwinded, but it included the words ‘Taghreft’ and ‘Tinariwen’.   Taghreft is a complex word meaning ‘the rebuilding’, ‘the reconstruction’ or ‘edification’, but also the crew or the community who carry out this regeneration.  Tinariwen is simply the plural of ‘Ténéré’, which means ‘desert’, ‘land’ or ‘empty place’.   Taghreft Tinariwen started to play for the exiled Touareg community…weddings, parties, and campfire reveries…and even managed to clinch an invitation to perform at a festival in Algiers.  They didn’t have the proper equipment so they asked a local Tamanrasset combo called Sawt El Hoggar to help them out.  That’s how Ibrahim got to curl his fingers around the neck of an electric guitar for the first time.   And that’s how a completely new style of music was born.

The crucial point is that the personal adventures of Ibrahim, Hassan, Inteyeden and future members of Tinariwen are faithful microcosms of the wider phenomenon of the ishumaren.  This Tamashek word is derived from the French ‘chomeur’, meaning ‘unemployed’, and it describes a whole generation of Touareg men who were driven from their homes by the droughts of ’73 and ’85, as well as by political conflict and lack of opportunity, to go and find work in neighbouring states like Libya and Algeria.  This epic displacement transformed Touareg society and forced it to confront the modern world.  Old hierarchies of tribes, clans and families, in which each person knew their place and their duty, were completely devastated.  Men who were descended from generations of nomadic animal herders and traders were forced to work for money for the first time.  Old tribal enemies were now united by suffering and common political motives.  Many young Touareg men exchanged the utter silence of their desert home for the bustle of modern cities.  And they heard music from Europe, America and other parts of the Arabic world that they never even knew existed.

The camps which were set up by Khadafy in Libya to welcome hordes of these errant young Touareg in the early 1980s were run along brutish military lines.  The Libyan and Chadian trainers could be ruthless.  Khadafy had a vision of a mercenary Islamic army that would further his revolutionary and territorial ambitions in places like Niger, Chad and the Middle East.  The young Touareg however were told that they were being trained up to liberate themselves and eventually create their own autonomous Touareg nation in the middle of the Sahara.  This lie became more and more apparent towards the end of the 1980s, especially when Khadafy started to negotiate the repatriation of Touareg from Niger directly with the Nigerien government.   In any case, the idea of an Arabic Islamic regiment ultimately held little appeal to the Touareg, who were increasingly proud of their distinctly African and Berber origins.

During this time, Taghreft Tinariwen, as they were still known, started to take on the role of the musical voice of the ishumaren.  The revolutionary Touareg movement, the MPA (Mouvement Populaire de l’Azawad), and it’s charismatic leader Iyad Ag Ghali, saw the potential in fostering the group’s talent, and provided money for basic equipment and a rehearsal space.  With no Tamashek language newspapers, magazines, radio or TV stations in existence, Tinariwen’s songs carried the message of hope, struggle, pain, exile and nostalgia to the Tamashek speaking people.  It was a cassette-to-cassette ghetto-blaster grapevine.  The audio quality was as atrocious as the message was powerful.   It was an electrified sound and thus appealed to a youth that were wrestling with modernity.  It was rock’n’roll.

But it would be a mistake to ever reduce Tinariwen to one-dimensional propagandists.  Their message was always more about the rebellion of the soul that the rebellion of the Kalashnikov and bullet.  Their songs freeze frame the young Touareg everyman, exiled from his homeland, forced into meaningless labour, pining for his home, his family, his mother and his sisters.  And in that sense, their music is also intensely personal.  The older members including Ibrahim, Hassan, Japonais, Kheddou, Inteyeden and Abdallah, did take part in the rebellion which broke out in Niger in the summer of 1990.  An ex-rebel once told me that he well remembers Ibrahim and Abdallah entertaining their fellow fighters in a secret bush camp on the night of the now legendary attack a the police post in Menaka, a skirmish which kicked off the rebellion in Mali in June 1990.  Like almost every other European or North American I was initially dazzled by these stories of ‘real’ rebellion and I’d admit to putting excessive emphasis on them when we started promoting Tinariwen in Europe.  Prolonged contact with the band has since wised me up.  It’s clear that the rebellion is a mute subject for them, one that harbours a great deal of pain and bad memories.  There was adventure, and there was heroism too, but in the end, the actual conflict was but a brief episode in a long struggle which is full of unexpected shade and subtlety.  In every real world conflict the distinction between good guys and bad guys is never as blatant as sensationalising journalists would like it to be.  The Touareg rebellion was no exception.

When peace finally came to the southern Sahara with the ritual burning of more that 3,000 small arms at The Flame of Peace in Timbuktu in 1996, Ibrahim, Hassan et al refused offers of reintegration into the Malian army or administration and decided to make a go of being full time musicians.  Some of the extended Tinariwen family (and that’s precisely what Tinariwen has always been, an extended musical family of friends who form little sub-groups to tour and record when opportunity knocks), like Kheddou and Foy Foy did accept jobs offered by the Malian government under the UN sponsored post-conflict reintegration programme. Tinariwen emerged from the rebel underground as a working group and they were welcomed like a heroic mystery finally unveiled.  Thanks to that portentous meeting with the French band Lo’Jo in Bamako in 1998, the Tinariwen phenomenon started to spread beyond their southern Saharan home, slowly at first but now with increasing momentum.   It started with a brief tour of France in 1999 and that first Festival in the Desert, followed by their debut CD, ‘Radio Tisdas’, their latest, ‘Amassakoul’, tours of Europe and USA, accolades and the modern nomadism of the struggling musician.   Where all of this is leading, none of us know.

Managing a legendary group from the southern Sahara is no piece of cake.  You’re constantly having to explain the apparent absurdities of the western music industry, with its voracious and fickle media machine, its painfully slow money flows and its time and paper obsessed ways of operating, to people who feel more comfortable with a smile, a handshake, immediate payment for a job well done and an ‘I’ll make it if I can’ outlook.  But I have to say that working with Tinariwen has been a joy.  Somehow the pervasive toughness of life in the desert, where to complain about discomfort is taboo, has knocked any hint of prissy prima-donna behaviour out of the band.  No doubt those Libyan army sergeants also had something to do with it.  If the gear needs to be loaded into the van at three in the morning on a pissing cold night in Manchester, then Tinariwen is equal to the task.  Compared to the life of a nomad in the bleak hills of the Adrar des Iforas, it’s nothing.

But above all the pleasure has been in getting better acquainted with a remarkable bunch of characters; Ibrahim with his intense reserve and melancholy which more than occasionally get swept away by a magnetic friendliness, which is awkward, guileless and very appealing all at once; Hassan with his rock solid sense of humor reminding you that laughter is the strongest weapon of all; Abdallah with his Errol Flynn smile, his self-deprecating quips, his uncharacteristic chattiness; Eyadou with his simple straight-forward friendliness; Sarid with his cheeky desert dude charms and unassailable grin; Elaga with his slightly spaced out look and quiet mischievousness; Mina, the princess, who doesn’t even have to make any kind of effort to emboy all the beauty and grace of Touareg womanhood.  And there isn’t even the space to praise the qualities of the ‘resting’ members of the band, like Japonnais, Kheddou, Foy Foy or Sweiloum.  When Tinariwen launch into one of their songs on one of their good nights…let’s say ‘Amassakoul’, or ‘Amidinin’ or ‘Chatma’…I’m immediately transported to the place they come from.  My nostrils prick up to the smell of tea, tobacco and gasoline.  The pentatonic drone of the music rolls out the endless line of the desert horizons.  The perpetual polyrhythms put wanderlust back into my heart and my feet.  The slashing guitars remind me of the bewitching harshness of those stony plains, and the gritty truths of recent desert history.  The flowing robes and cheches or turbans of the band remind of the equally bewitching beauty and poise for which the Touareg are justifiably renowned.  And the lyrics, as far as I understand them, remind me that there’s more to this band than I can possibly ever grasp or know.

Andy Morgan.  (c) 2009

First published in Songlines – Feb 2007

  10 comments for “TINARIWEN – Sons of the desert

  1. Akli
    January 17, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    wonderful article. full of insightful ideas and great knowledge to both band and to their people.

  2. Mark Hudson
    January 21, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Woah!Stylish website man. One day I’ll get my own together with a gallery including the infamous ‘toothbrushing’ photograph.

  3. Pingback: Tinariwen | 1537

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