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Tinariwen Talks 'Emmaar', Politics, and Working with Matt Sweeney

There's snow getting everywhere. This does not seem to phase the members of Tinariwen. They have bigger things on their mind.

by Zachary Lipez
Feb 20 2014, 5:25pm

It’s snowing in New York City, which isn’t news. Everybody is complaining about the snow and that’s not news either, but the band Tinariwen are holed up at the Ace Hotel, their Monday show at Rough Trade is cancelled, and the band is just getting started on a day of repetitive questions from journalists. The snow is tracking everywhere and everyone around them—from the French translator to the label guy from Tinariwen’s US label, Anti, to me (the current asker of questions they have undoubtedly heard before)—seems embarrassed by how hard it’s snowing outside. What a pain in the ass this must be for a band formed in Libya while exiled from the desert of northern Mali, and what a poor showing, weather wise, the fine city of New York is offering up to the originators and, thirty years in, finest purveyors of desert blues on the planet. But the members of Tinariwen in attendance; bassist, Eyadou Ag Leche and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni (one of the multiple lead guitarists in the group), both in jeans and leather jackets far removed from the traditional Tuareg garb that they wear on stage, seem unfazed. They take long smoke breaks in the cold and offer everyone in the hotel room strong sweet tea from one glass.

I interviewed Eyadou while Abdallah alternated between half napping on the bed besides us and bemusedly staring out the window at the gathering slush. The interview was occasionally comical as the French interpreter would repeat my long-winded questions in French, Eyadou would give equally expansive answers and the translator would repeat to me translated answers that rarely lasted longer than three sentences. This may have been due to a criticism Eyadou has gotten in the past as being a bit too pro-MNLA (the armed side of the Azawad liberation movement), but as a non-French speaker, I could also assume that he was just giving long answers that the translator was kindly summing up for me.

Tinariwen’s history (forming in Libya while in exile from Mali, intermittently taking part in Azawad independence struggle, having their tapes passed around throughout Saharan Africa, eventually coming to the attention of western musicians and producers, a Grammy) is well enough known to anyone with a passing interest in “world” music and a Wikipedia button on their phone. In recent years, Tinariwen has collaborated with TV on the Radio members and been remixed by Four Tet and on their new album, Emmaar, they’re joined by Josh Klinghoffer from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Matt Sweeney from Chavez/Endless Boogie (Eyadou spoke highly of all the collaborators though I pressed him to be particularly effusive about Matt, which he was. For Sweeney’s part, Matt said he couldn't put his experience into words as he was so humbled and stoked to be there…but he did say they are no slouches at HORSE). Despite all this (especially Sweeney’s vouching for their basketball skills) and the fact that they are widely considered one of the most important, for lack of a better term, “rock” outfits in existence, reviewers still tend to write about them in terms of “dervishes on the sands of time” grad school othering hokum. Not insulting exactly, but writing as though the band was more jinn than men. This too does not seem to faze the members of Tinariwen. They have bigger things on their mind.

Because the situation in Mali was and, despite the retaking of the north by French and Mali armed forces, remains untenable, Tinariwen recorded Emmaar in Joshua Tree where at least, Eyadou says; “it was in the desert so we were at home.” I asked about the studio that was built for them and how it affected the sound, especially since their last album, the distinctly mellower, Tassili, was literally recorded outside in the desert.

“This album is totally a Tinariwen sound, but with this studio, we…we used to play with a rudimentary recording material….with amps with batteries, so the sound would be kind of weak but with (the better studio) the sound was (and here Eyadou makes an explosive hand motion and a sort ‘bkkkkkoooowwww’ sound that we can safely interpret as ‘the guitar sound was very, very good’) and so we were able to do what we wanted to do in the studio.”

The songs on the new record were written as they always are, collectively by the band (with the guest collaborators allowed to be “totally open” in what they were encouraged to add to the already existing and being played live arrangements): “Someone can come with their own song but there is no direction to it. Everyone is free to add their own part. It is a very free way to write a song. Someone comes with a text of lyrics but again there is contribution of poetry from other members. The important thing is that everyone does have a feeling what direction the member who brings in the song is feeling. And we all follow that.” What they collectively came up with is a collection of songs that are driving blues with an unmistakable sense of loss; equal parts choogle, and best friend’s wake. The drone that provides the undercurrent of much of the album comes from the tradition of having a chorus of low moaning behind a reciter of Tuareg poetry. “When we say ‘poetry,’ there are voices in the background providing the drone and now we approximate that with the low tones of the guitars. It’s part of us. Of course, when we play we just do it naturally. “ This sort of “it’s just what we do” attitude extends to Tinariwen’s supposed blues or British rock influences. Eyadou doesn’t deny the influences, and much has been written about the blues itself coming from the music of the great Niger bend, but makes it clear the core sounds come from Tuareg culture and the immediate influences of West Africa. All the later Dire Straits and Hendrix flourishes were just staining the glass, beautiful, and perhaps aesthetically necessary, but the architecture was already there. It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes the crossover for American audiences so seamless, but the themes Tinariwen deal most in; loss, love of family both blood and extended, just wanting to go the hell home, are universal.

The lyrics on Emmaar range from the almost Hafez-esque in its mournful romanticism of "Tin Ihlan ([The Girl] with the Beauty Spots)" to straight up protest songs of "Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim (Friends, Hear Me!)" to a number of songs that are equal parts both. “Our lyrics are really our day to day, exactly what we do live, we do a political situation to be sure, but really the poetry just is our lives…what we do…”

The discussion of lyrics lead to the unfortunate but needed aspect of interviewing a band like Tinariwen. They are at least partially based on protest and drawing attention to the perceived plights of their people, the Tuareg. The cause that they long espoused was, in the last couple years, entirely taken over in practice by Islamists who had neither the Tuareg nor the general Muslim population of Mali’s interests as its primary concern, rather being bent on enveloping Mali (and Libya and Algeria and…) into a larger delusional caliphate. Basically Tinariwen aren’t terribly popular in Bamako right now. Which is to be expected, as they never were. It was notable that when, at the height of the crisis, a song of national unity (Voices United For Mali, organized by wonderful Mali singer, Fatoumata Diawara) included only one Tuareg performer and no members of inarguably the two most well known Tuareg bands, Tinariwen and Tamikrest. Tamikrest was on tour. Tinariwen was forced into hiding and refugee camps and even, in the case of founding member, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib (who while still an active writing member of the band will not, because of age and family, no longer be touring) thought at the time to have been arrested, by the Ansar Dine. But Eyadou says they wouldn’t have taken part either way. “To us, it was not a simply artistic song. It was something politics-dictated. We have nothing against any art or culture but they did this song and added one Tuareg artist to show that everything is beautiful…” Viewing a song that was taken by most (?) as entirely well-intentioned as a piece of propaganda, and making a pretty convincing or at least understandable argument for doing so, is indicative of how complicated it is for artists in Mali, whether in Bamako or in the north. They all want Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda out, but that doesn’t erase the longstanding issues that made an Islamist takeover such a possible threat in the first place.

I asked how Eyadou about the French intervention. “To us, at least to me, the situation we are facing is because of the French…so it’s normal that they should come back to be part of this….but it is difficult to see a way out. France decided to make these borders 50 years ago. France came into this conflict when it was a bad issue so I’m glad they came…but hopefully they will leave. Hopefully they won’t take everything. But the French know EXACTLY what the situation is. We don’t know what the French will give to us. Maybe they will help or maybe they will just make more borders and work with the bad politicians. So, actually, we don’t know. It’s a long bad history with the French. We don’t know what they’re bringing now.” This of course echoes those in Mali who are not particularly sympathetic to the Tuareg cause. At least everyone agrees that no one trusts France worth a damn.

The problem with even having this conversation with Tinariwen (who, to be fair, have reasonable critics of their nationalism both in and outside of Mali) is that it reduces them in ways that they don’t deserve. Their lyrics, even at their most pointed, are not simple-minded pamphleteering, and their music is rarely short of transcendent. They seem to struggle whether to be seen as revolutionaries with guitars or as desert artists assigned the weight of carrying their people’s message to the world. Perhaps they want to be both. In recent years, the band has accentuated the artist aspects while keeping the Azawad independence talk to more hopeful tone. “To us…this is something that will happen at some point. Something will happen naturally. There is a young generation that feels that and eventually this will happen. One day.” I asked if he foresees the return of the much-vaunted Festival in the Desert, to which he responded, “The first thing we are waiting for is for politicians to make a solution. In order to dance you must feel at ease.”

A few days after I sat down with them, Tinariwen played in the lobby of the Ace Hotel. It was full of young tech yuppies and wealthy Europeans hiding from the persistent snow. There was a small crowd who were there specifically for Tinariwen; notable attendees included Adrian Grenier and one of the nice clerks from Other Music. The people in the center table had to be told repeatedly to shut their laptops and Tinariwen seemed amused and slightly embarrassed by the situation. Abdallah did all the talking, asking if everything sounded OK (yes) and if anyone spoke French (no), while the other two (guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid was with them) laughed and occasionally rubbed their temples. I barely restrained my most dad-ish impulses of shaking some tourists in the back that really thought their conversation was more interesting than what was happening in front of them. I badly wanted to smack the lattes out of their hands and scream, “These people are making gorgeous music! They have more dead friends than you have brain cells! What is wrong with you?!” but I didn’t. Instead I watched the band Tinariwen, standing on the frost-marked floor, wearing their tagelmusts, playing guitars and calabash gourd, making the sort of noise to make a cherub weep and the self-involvement of the human lattes not paying attention to them irrelevant. Like genius, “beautiful” and “awesome” are overused, but the performance was both. Tinariwen played five songs, some people looked at their phones; some people stared at the band, fully realizing how lucky they were to see this.

I had asked Eyadou a few days before if being from a nomadic culture made it easier to tour. He told me “Not because of nomadic culture but because we are Tuareg, we have a strong feeling as a people of family and our own environment. So being on the road is not easy because we have a feeling of nostalgia for our family and our home. Luckily traveling is easy now so touring is easier. The flights, the trains are easier. It’s not like the desert, it’s about the internal feelings…we miss our homes. “

And, given the choice between playing for thousands of people and making music beloved worldwide and staying in the (for this hypothetical, peaceful) desert, still just trading tapes and playing for their friends and family; which would he choose?

“It is a VERY Difficult choice. This is the first time I’ve ever been asked this question. My choice would be playing for the world, because it’s the way for the world to know about the community. If we stayed in the desert the music would be forgotten, useless.”

Zachary Lipez just made some songs. Listen to them? Anyways, follow him on Twitter - @ZacharyLipez