What have you got to say, my friends, about this painful time we’re living through?” The question that powers Tassili, Tinariwen’s Grammy-winning fifth album, is, in many ways, typical of this utterly atypical band of Malian musicians, who will be in New Zealand at the International Arts Festival next month. It summons up the group and encourages conversation; it also acknowledges life’s difficulties (in this case, the political troubles in their native North Africa) without allowing them mastery.
If Ibrahim Ag Alhabib is the heart of the Tinariwen collective, he is, like any heart, unable to manage without the surrounding network that nourishes him. Ag Alhabib is Tuareg; he and several other of the older musicians (the collective swirls and shifts like the Sahara desert its nomadic members consider home) received military training from Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in the 1980s and joined the Tuareg rebellion in Mali in 1990.
But in between toting Kalashnikovs, the musicians hefted guitars, lutes and drums, and their extraordinary music both expresses conflict and celebrates harmony. Tassili has contributions from Nels Cline of Wilco, and Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio. But to record, those Westerners were obliged to travel to the southern Algerian desert, where Tinariwen wrestled with sand, wind and the idiosyncrasies of portable electric equipment – not through some prima donna notion of authenticity, but because their usual base in northern Mali is unsafe for outsiders to visit. Painful times, indeed.
The current six-person configuration of Tinariwen is still led by Ag Alhabib and fellow old hand Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, although they take issue with the idea of leaders. “We are a co-operative!” they tell me, in French and via email, choosing not to specify who is answering when. “We work in a very intuitive way, making decisions communally, although we always leave space for the elders’ wisdom.”
None of the band speaks English and they sing in Tamashek, the Tuareg language, which lessens the impact of their songs not a jot. Their music eddies around all attempts at categorisation; perhaps unsurprisingly, questions to the band seem to work the same way. I ask how many of the current grouping were soldiers and am told, “We have all made the choice to lay down our arms in order to evoke our people’s experience via the peaceful method of music.”
Well, yes, but that doesn’t really answer the question. They have, the musicians say, chosen a different form of struggle. “We believe that sound and atmosphere are more powerful weapons than guns.” They know they are, in a sense, representatives of their people – even in Tamashek they allow the voice of the Tuaregs to be heard internationally, especially with Tassili’s Best World Music Album win at the Grammys – but for people who once took up arms they are remarkably apolitical in their pronouncements.
“We always want the best for our people, and we hope that the current troubles in North Africa will find a peaceful resolution,” they say, “but we sing the song of Liberty.” And with that definition – as broad and mutable as the Sahara itself – I have to be content.
There cannot be many bands with such international impact whose roots are so far from the music of the West; even the blues would have been a late addition to these desert-dwellers’ repertoire. Is it true, I ask, that Ag Alhabib (whose father, a Tuareg rebel, was executed during a 1963 uprising in Mali) made his first guitar out of a tin can as a small child? “Yes, of course,” he says. “Children today do the same thing.” But the other instruments they describe are far less familiar than home-made guitars.
Their traditional flute is made from the bark of a desert tree whose branches grow long in the search for water. They use a three-chord guitar called a tehardant and a violin known as an imzad, as well as the tinde, a traditional percussion instrument. “And, of course,” they add, “we all learn to play the instruments we have naturally: our voices, our hands, the clapping and singing that invariably accompany our dances.”
Although Tinariwen have gone very much back to basics with Tassili (including eschewing female voices, which have featured on previous albums), they say they are not making an ideological statement by putting down their electric guitars; rather, it’s a question of musical experimentation. “The guitar was introduced into Berber civilisation in the 1970s, and we have intuitively adapted it to the rhythms and tonalities of our traditional music.” Being Tuareg, for them, is precisely about this kind of freedom: they want to come and go as they please musically as well as geographically. Tinariwen’s songs have long been the soundtrack of the Tuareg independence movement.
I ask about growing up in Algerian and Libyan refugee camps, which several band members did. They reply that being in exile is a profound and incredibly difficult experience, but one that has shaped them. This tells me very little, and I don’t think it’s because we’re all speaking in a second language; it is words themselves that are inadequate. But when I listen to Arawan, from the 2004 album Amassakoul, I don’t need to know that some of the lyrics translate as “nobody cares about the people of the desert who are suffering from thirst”; the plaintive ululations and the music’s force convey the musicians’ experiences perfectly.
Tinariwen sound the bells of their particular language and we hear the emotions ring out: that’s the power of music, or of poetry. Diversity, they maintain, is one of life’s great beauties. “The joy of discovery never ends.” These are the words of true nomads: restless spirits, always up for trammelling borders, whether political, intellectual or literal. Now that we all have mobile phones and internet connections, I ask, and the musicians of the desert come to play in the Antipodes as easily as a child runs from one sand dune to the next, are the settled peoples of the world going to become untethered?
Has the age of the nomad finally arrived? “Humanity was originally nomadic,” they reply. “So that would be no more than a return to all our roots. Nothing astonishing in that!”
TINARIWEN, Wellington Town Hall tonight, as part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival. Details here; Tassili is out now on V2 Music.