The roving "poet soldiers" called Tinariwen comprise one of the most exciting groups on the world-music landscape. Carlos Santana and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant are among their growing legion of fans. But the band's story is long and tragic, born of the brutal, ongoing Touareg rebellion in the West African nation of Mali.
The Touaregs are a mysterious nomadic tribe, roaming the vast expanse of the Sahara Desert with no real place to call home. Tinariwen's music is similarly itinerant, drawing on Western influences such as blues and rock while remaining rooted in tribal traditions. The result is a sound that embodies their culture's restless spirit as well as the hope for a brighter future.
Seven Days recently "conversed" with Tinariwen multi-instrumentalist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni via email and a translator, in advance of his group's performance next Monday for the Putumayo and Cumbancha World Music Series at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge.
SEVEN DAYS: Do you see parallels between the nomadic nature of Touareg culture and your lives now as touring musicians?
ABDALLAH AG ALHOUSSEYNI: Yes, but only "poetic" ones. In reality, the life is quite different. Even though the nomad in the desert moves around, following the seasons and the best pastures with his herds, his life is actually quite anchored, first in a specific region of the desert, second in his family, his clan, his traditions, and thirdly with his animals, which provide everything he and his family need to survive. It's a quiet, isolated and very tranquil existence, and is based entirely on man's relationship with nature . . . Touring in a band is all about being in cities, about constantly moving on a day-to-day basis, about being cut off from nature, and from quiet and solitude, about being ruled 24 hours a day by deadlines and schedules. It demands a completely different mentality.
Having said that, I do think that the Touareg are good travelers. They have no fear of traveling and being away from home. It's part of our culture.
SD: How has the political turbulence in Mali informed your approach to music?
AA: I wouldn't say that it's the political turbulence so much as the social and cultural turbulence, which informs our music. Tinariwen was born out of the movement of young Touaregs away from their homes in northern Mali and Niger, and into the Maghreb, especially Algeria and Libya, in the 1970s and 1980s. This was a social movement, forced by drought and lack of political freedom.
Of course, it had a political dimension, too. There was an official rebel movement in those days, the MPA (Mouvement Populaire de l'Azawad), and we were closely associated with it. But we never saw ourselves as politicians, always as musicians, singing about the realities of the current situation in the desert and urging our Touareg brothers and sisters to unite, to be strong, in order to face this difficult future.
SD: You draw inspiration from not only great African artists like Ali and Vieux Farke Touré, but also from American and European artists. Could you describe how Western influences have helped shape your music in conjunction with your native roots?
AA: Our inspiration comes more from Vieux's father Ali Farka Touré than from Vieux himself. But we respect Vieux hugely and count him as a friend, especially after the recent run of dates we did together in Spain, Portugal and the USA. Ali was a big influence, not only on us, but on all Malian music. He had that inspiration in the late 1960s to play traditional music on the guitar.
As for western artists, we each have our own tastes. I'm a big fan of acoustic guitar music, especially country & western. I've recently discovered Johnny Cash, for example. Back in the 1980s, there were certain artists that we all listened to, like Santana and Dire Straits. But otherwise, our tastes are quite varied. Said is a big fan of hip-hop. Intidao likes his soul music. Ibrahim listens to all kinds of things. But I'd say that the strongest common influence is our own traditional music. Nothing is stronger than that!
SD: Your music is often called revolutionary, yet your subject matter is rarely explicitly political. What is it about your writing that inspires such sentiments among its listeners?
AA: It's true that Tinariwen has long been associated with the rebellion. But we were always more about the rebellion of the soul than the rebellion of the gun. Nevertheless, people are often quite happy with a superficial appreciation of what we're about. They read about rebellion, and the fact that some of us were there in the middle of it, and then to them we're a revolutionary band. If you actually read the lyrics to our songs, they're more to do with raising awareness of our situation, of what needs to be done. And often they're very, very personal, and all about our feelings of loneliness and separation from our loved ones and family.
SD: What messages do you hope American audiences will gain from your performances?
AA: It's not so much a message as a general impression that we're hoping to convey. One that says there is a place called the Sahara Desert. It is inhabited by an ancient people with their own ancient culture. This culture is beautiful and unique and, like many beautiful and unique cultures, it faces many political, social and environmental problems. If people understand that much, we're doing a good job. And, of course, if they're having a great time while they're understanding it, then we're doing an even better one!