Photo: Marie Planeille / Pitch Perfect PR

Liberation Blues: Tinariwen Invoke the Sahel’s Complex History on ‘Amatssou’

Connections with Jack White and Daniel Lanois are great, but West African blues collective Tinariwen had to navigate Covid and political unrest to deliver their surprisingly exuberant new LP.

19 May 2023

The year 1968 was momentous in the annals of rock musicians engaging with non-Western cultural traditions. During the same year anti-war protests erupted in Paris and Berkeley, the Beatles took off for northern India to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. This sojourn proved to be an extraordinarily productive period of songwriting, with over two dozen classics being composed, including “Dear Prudence”, “Blackbird”, and “Julia”, which would end up on the White Album released later that year. 

Meanwhile, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones took off for Morocco that July, where he encountered and recorded the Sufi traditional music of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, a collective popularized by the legendary American ex-pat writer Paul Bowles and his erstwhile compatriot William Burroughs. Jones died the year after his adventure, drowning in his swimming pool, shortly after being dismissed from the Stones. 

Nonetheless, his recordings from Morocco were released posthumously in 1971 with the LP Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka. Subsequent musicians such as jazz great Ornette Coleman and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth followed the lead of Jones by visiting and performing with the Master Musicians. In an homage to Jones, the Rolling Stones incorporated their sound in “Continental Drift” from Steel Wheels (1989) decades later.

This pattern of engagement, collaboration, and at times appropriation can be seen in numerous other cases – David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, and Paul Simon quickly come to mind. Yet, a strong counternarrative has also taken hold. Building on the legacies of canonical figures like Miriam Makeba, Fela Kuti, and Bob Marley, record labels have increasingly turned the table by going directly to the source. The critical acclaim received by musicians like Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré, and Black Coffee, among many recent examples, testifies to the significance and impact of this shift, especially the enthusiasm and hunger for African pop music, which continues to grow every year.

Tinariwen are among the more recent beneficiaries of this trend, though it may be their international audience that ultimately has the most to gain. Like most rock bands, Tinariwen tend to do their own thing, regardless of who their listeners are. Once you remove the trappings of their desert origins in the Sahel region of northern Mali and southern Algeria – the loose-fitting robes, the lyrics in Tuareg, the insistent rhythms that reflect an enduring nomadic tradition – you have a bunch of guys who like to plug in their guitars and jam as a means of personal and communal expression. This fact explains why musicians like Kurt Vile, Matt Sweeney, Mark Lanegan, and Robert Plant have gone out of their way to record with them or hear them play live. After seeing them perform at the Festival au Désert in Mali in 2003, Plant reportedly said, “I felt this was the music I’d been looking for all my life.” 

Tinariwen’s latest LP, Amatssou, which translates as “Beyond the Fear”, is their ninth studio album. It maintains the same guitar-based sound as their preceding work, though with subtle touches, like more acoustic instrumentation, that signal experimentation in new directions, specifically with American country music. Similar to Tassili (2011), their Grammy-winning breakthrough with Nels Cline of Wilco and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio guesting, Amatssou was originally conceived as a collaborative project involving Jack White and producer Daniel Lanois. It was to be recorded in White’s private studio in Nashville with local session musicians participating. 

Yet, as with most recording projects over the past several years, the pandemic hit, disrupting the proposed plan and radically reshaping the album. Recording was shifted to Djanet, an oasis in southern Algeria in Tassili N’Ajjer National Park, where a tent served as a makeshift studio. Despite the seeming remoteness, this new spot for making Amatssou is only a two-day drive away from Tamanrasset, where the first iteration of Tinariwen was founded almost 45 years ago in 1979. At the time, they had no name, so locals called them “Kel Tinariwen”, which in slang meant “The Desert Boys”. Today, it’s just Tinariwen (“Deserts”).

PopMatters spoke to Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, one of Tinariwen’s three remaining founding members, including Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and Alhassane Ag Touhami, who discussed the making of Amatssou. “Personally, I love the picking guitar style of American country music,” Abdallah explains when asked about the album’s engagement with this different genre. He adds with a smile, “Our music is also country music.” He elaborates, “When we started out, our music was played to shepherds around campfires, telling the stories of the old times. We feel that our music is still connected to nature and nomadism, like the cowboys from the old times in the American West.” He further remarks, “The banjo is also an instrument used in Algeria.”

Photo: Marie Planeille

Picking up on these latter points, I ask him about the songwriting and recording process, especially working with Lanois, the famed producer of classic albums by Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, and U2. “Daniel Lanois recorded his part remotely from his studio in Los Angeles; he was not involved in the other songs he was not working on,” Abdallah responds, clarifying once more the limited circumstances in making the LP. There had been additional plans that Lanois would travel to southern Algeria, but these fell through after he contracted Covid. Lanois ultimately provided pedal steel and piano accompaniment on only two tracks. 

In reply to their songwriting process, Abdallah goes more deeply into Tinariwen’s current status and the personal geographies involved. “We all live in different areas now. Some of us are in Tessalit, Kidal, in northern Mali. Others are close to the Algerian border,” he explains. “Ibrahim [Ag Alhabib] lives in the bush with no phone connection at all.” 

Their dispersed homes across the Sahel have resulted in a more individual approach to songwriting. “Each composer – Hassan [Ag Touhami], myself, Eyadou [Ag Leche] – is composing their own songs alone with a guitar,” Abdallah remarks, “and when we meet for touring or recording, we spend time playing these new songs live, or during soundcheck, or during an album’s pre-production.” He further says, “We record lots of songs live, 20 to 25 songs, and at the end, we decide the ones we think are ready to be on an album. We keep those for later.”

I ask him about the number of takes a track might require before recording and the length of the recording process for Amatssou. Abdallah replies that the timing can vary widely, depending on the song. “It can take years,” he says. “For example, we’ve been playing the song ‘Kek Alghalm’ [the record’s opening track] for many years. We tried to record it several times over the years, but we were never satisfied with the recordings. This time it worked. We don’t really know why.” As he explains further, “Sometimes we are in a good mood for a song, sometimes not. We usually record two or three takes live, and we know quite soon if the interpretation and arrangement work or not.” However, this approach leads to another issue. “We are used to composing songs in the immediate moment,” he concludes, “though it can take years to find good lyrics.”

In this regard, it should be stressed that Amatssou continues an ongoing theme across Tinariwen’s past several albums by directly and indirectly addressing the political upheaval in Mali and its effects on neighboring regions over the last decade. In 2012, a Tuareg political group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), mounted a political insurgency against the Malian government, leading to a coup and the occupation of northern Mali by the secular MNLA and Ansar Dine (also spelled Ansar al-Dine), a radical Islamist group. France, the US, and member states of the European Union sent soldiers and other forms of support for Mali’s government. Yet instability has remained, with two additional coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021. Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group have since been operating in the region to assist the Malian government, resulting in indiscriminate counter-violence against Muslims and a massacre of civilians in March 2022, according to Human Rights Watch.

Caught up in these events, they have produced mixed feelings for Tinariwen. On the one hand, their members are Muslim and have long promoted Tuareg self-determination in northern Mali and southern Algeria. At the age of four, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the principal founder of Tinariwen, witnessed the execution of his father, a Tuareg rebel, by the Malian government in 1963. He lived in refugee camps in the years that followed. On the other hand, the radical form of Islam espoused in the past decade by Ansar Dine has destroyed priceless library manuscripts in Timbuktu, the suppression of women’s rights, and banning music

Tinariwen, it should be clearly stated, did not support the jihadists. They felt directly targeted. Yet, being Tuareg, they also feel politically marginalized by the new Malian government, as they have by previous governments. The problem of being a stateless people, occupying the borderlands of several countries at once, remains. Most “world music” listeners of Tinariwen will have little grasp of these complexities, but they deeply inform the lyrics of Amatssou and its predecessors.

Amatssou‘s first single, “Tenere Den” (“Desert”), gets at the ambiguities of this political present. Its lyrics in translation begin, “Out there, the great desert / White at times, and at other times / Red with the blood of the martyrs.” The song portrays the deceptive two-sided nature of the desert as both a place of emptiness and a place full of history. “Don’t you know that the revolution has taken hold in the Adagh,” the song asks. “That it is vigilant and keeps hold of its positions.” Which revolution is left unclear, leaving it to the listener to unravel this track’s enigmatic meaning on their own – enigmatic in the same way that a desert can elude easy interpretation with its dearth of features.

I asked Abdallah about this song and which Tuareg revolution, or uprising, is being invoked, given that there have been many over the past several decades. “‘Tenere Den’ was originally written in the early 2000s, but we never had the occasion to release it,” he explains. “It refers to the rebellion of the 1990s, and the tribute it pays is to those who died fighting for their rights and freedom. It is obviously still relevant today because the Tuaregs still struggle.”

I ask him to further expand on the song’s metaphoric meaning and the theme of resistance. Might they distinguish the album as a whole? “Amatssou means ‘Beyond the Fear’. It is difficult to translate this word because it means ‘fear’ but also the ‘courage’ to face the issues of our people,” Abdallah comments. “These last few years, the political situation of the Sahel changed a lot: extremists are fighting against themselves and the Malian junta. Russian mercenaries are in our zone… the area between Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso is now very dangerous; people from villages are being killed.” He pauses. “So we don’t have the choice to move forward if we are afraid of these problems. That’s what Amatssou is talking about. Some songs talk about our people who died in the past, but it is also a call to all the Tuareg from the Sahel to get united against these threats.”

Bear in mind, Amatssou is characteristically upbeat and, at times, exuberant from a musical standpoint. It will not disappoint existing fans and serves as a fine introduction for new listeners. Yet, these feelings and outlook described by Abdallah can be found across the album’s lyrics. Tracks like “Arajghiyine” (“The Traitors”), “Jayche Atarak” (“Tareq’s Group”), and “Imidiwan Mahitinam” (“Companions, What Are You Saying?”) point to a world of political violence in the past and present. The absence of meaningful liberation and freedom for the Tuareg expressed here underscores Tinariwen’s noted affinity with the blues. These are songs of memory and resilience alike.

These themes equally return to the genre of American country music, which, in its older iterations, also furtively revealed histories of violence in rural America and the frontier West. In both cases, there is an incongruity between the frequently sanguine tone of the music and the melancholic substance of the lyrics. “Why so much silence, all over the world / Only spilt blood / Only brave men killed,” the album begins on its buoyant opening track “Kek Alghalm” (“The World”) – a sentiment that Johnny Cash would surely appreciate. 

Photo: Marie Planeille

Before finishing, I turn the conversation to a lighter set of questions, asking Abdallah about musical influences, African and otherwise. “We love Ali Farka Touré,” he replies when I ask him about Mali’s legendary guitarist. “Ali is from Niafunké, a village on the Niger River not far from Timbuktu.” He goes on to explain the differences between their guitar-playing styles. “Tinariwen are from Tessalit in the Kidal region in the far north of Mali, close to the Algerian border. Our music is different from Ali’s music. Our music is coming from traditional Tuareg music, which uses the tende [drum] and imzad [a single-string instrument],” he remarks. “I think that the common ground with Ali’s music is more about the feeling of nostalgia that we call ‘assouf’ [‘desert blues’]. Americans call it the blues, Brazilians call it saudade.”

I ask about Mdou Moctar, an excellent, younger Tuareg guitarist whose international fame has recently grown. “We know him and met him on tour… We like his energy on stage; he is a great guitar player and performer,” Abdallah says in agreement. “He comes from Niger, which is another style of music from the Sahara, closer to Bombino [another Tuareg guitarist from Niger].”

I then enquire about American or British rock bands as influences. Have the Beatles been important to Tinariwen, given their global reach? Or the Rolling Stones, perhaps, given their stronger blues pedigree? “Since we were young, we have loved bands like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Pink Floyd,” Abdallah replies. Then, like any diehard guitar aficionado, he adds with a smile, “Also, Dire Straits.”