Spirit of the Sahara: An Interview with Tinariwen

As guitarist and singer Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni explained sagely, Tinariwen's music has a global message.

In the midst of an extensive New York winter, Tinariwen stopped through New York to promote their new album Emmaar (“heat of the breeze”). The falling snow isn’t something the Malian band is used to out in the Saharan desert. But unfortunately, their country is in disarray given that attempts to create a separate or autonomous area in Azawad as a home for the Tuareg people have resulted in an extremist Islamic presence escalating conflicts with the Malian government. Tinariwen was thus persuaded to record Emmaar in a different desert, California’s Joshua Tree.

I had seen the band twice in 2012, once at the Clearwater Festival (that Pete Seeger had been integral in founding) and then a few days later at an MTV event in New York. Now in 2014, just a few days shy of the new album’s release, I welcomed the opportunity to meet Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni in his NYC hotel, away from the chill, for an interview (with the aid of a translator because I do not speak French). I am the last interviewer Ag Alhousseyni has scheduled that day, and we’ll have to take a break in the middle of our conversation so that he can pray, but we have ample time to chat about Emmaar, the band’s upcoming tour and their politics.

Tassili, the band’s previous album, earned the group a Grammy for best world music album. That album had a much more acoustic feel and felt influenced by the prominent special guests involved, but for Emmaar, Tinariwen returned to their roots to create a rock album with a warm atmosphere — allowing the listener to feel drift in the desert winds. There are some special guests, including Josh Klinghoffer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Matt Sweeney from Chavez and Saul Williams, but their sounds are embraced by Tinariwen. Ag Alhousseyni explained that Tinariwen had met Klinghoffer at a festival in Los Angeles back in 2010, but the other artists weren’t known to them before recording Emmaar. That the universality of music helped remove the communication barriers between the American and Tuareg musicians only adds to the persuasive mystique of a nomadic life.

After a three-week recording period, the completed album was under their belt. So Tinariwen hit the road again to perform around the world and bring the desert to their fans. They don’t have a calculated presentation, but clad in traditional Tuareg suits, Tinariwen transmit the swirling spirit of the Sahara with their instruments. And more and more people are embracing that spirit. Tinariwen visited two new countries, Chile and India, in January to perform. Ag Alhousseyni felt there were many similarities between the atmosphere in India and in Africa but enjoyed his visit. He was more impressed with Chile because its landscapes and atmosphere placed an indelible mark on his mind, he had never thought about it before but it was a good discovery. The band is open to performing everywhere if given the chance. They had been invited to Israel to perform at a big festival, with many international acts, right after they finished recording Emmaar, but one week before that was going to happen, the festival got cancelled.

But of all the places in the world, Tinariwen must be missed most in Mali. Ag Alhousseyni knows the community is waiting for them to play in their own territory but the situation is complicated. The Tuareg community is scattered, with many of them in Northern Mali but some of them fled to Mauritania or Niger. Hopefully they can return soon, but the political upheaval makes it difficult. Extremists have made life difficult for the nomads, threatening them with imprisonment or death. One of the musicians, guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida, had been arrested in 2013 for being a musician and all of his instruments were destroyed by the militant Ansar Dine.

Roots of the current political situation in Mali can be traced back to the ’60s. What Ag Alhousseyni hopes most is that the clarity can be brought to the situation given all the confusion present now. He believes that there needs to be a mediator so that the Mali government and the Tuareg community can understand each other. Any likely attempts to create this resolution would imply that the militant Islamists have been driven out. French forces might be able to help with that but it will take some serious encouragement for the Malian government give the Tuareg sovereignty in Azawad.

All Tinariwen can do is share their music, with lyrical references to the political tension and strife in Mali, with the world. Ag Alhousseyni reminds me that the important thing about politics is that politics isn’t a bad thing. Politics should be a good thing. It is here to connect and to give good direction. Today when we speak about politics, we have a feeling that it is already bad. Politics is in Tinariwen’s lyrics. Our songs are political.

Which led me to ask, was it not to Tinariwen’s disadvantage to only sing in Tamasheq given that less people are familiar with the language? Ag Alhousseyni enlightened me. It is true if you sing in another language it can convey a more global message but that isn’t Tinariwen’s way. Music is the best way to communicate because music is universally understood. Thus there is no language barrier.


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