All Deserts Together

Born in strife, North Africa's Tinariwen brings a positive and joyful message through its music

From one desert to another comes the North African group Tinariwen, which has for more than 30 years traveled the world, playing the traditional music of the nomadic Tuareg people in North Mali and Algeria.

Although the group was born in strife, its members have consistently tried to remain positive and joyful, said bassist Eyadou Ag Leche.

Bandleader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, for instance, grew up in refugee camps in the deserts around the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset. His family fled there after being flushed by the Malian army from their home of Adrar des Iforas. When he was 4 years old, Ag Alhabib's father was murdered by soldiers for assisting rebels.

Nevertheless, the collective goal of Tinariwen is "to love so much what we do, to be always in the fidelity, in respect to our times and our spirit, naturally, simply. Not to be too tired too fast," Ag Leche said recently by e-mail.

Because Ag Leche doesn't speak English, the band's tour manager, Bastien Gsell, translated and sent the answers back to the Weekly.

Tinariwen will visit Tucson to play a Nov. 2 gig at the Rialto Theatre. The opening act is Swiss singer-songwriter Sophie Hunger, whose forte is magnetic indie folk-pop.

Two dozen or so musicians—all Tuareg—have rotated through the ranks of Tinariwen over the last three decades. Nowadays, the group features a few original members, as well as a second generation. Among the younger band members is Ag Leche, who has played with Tinariwen since about 2001.

"In many ways, it is a big family, as all of Tamashek's population are behind us, with the band in movement," said Ag Leche. Kel Tamashek ("the Tamashek speaking people") is another designation for the Tuareg.

One of the most-important elements of the Tinariwen mission is to propagate "the people's history, and the freedom that we found with our music, to share this with the world. We hope people listening feel good in their lives and have ambition to build a reasonable world together for our children."

Tinariwen began in the late 1970s, when Ag Alhabib met other likeminded Tuareg who enjoyed combining their traditional musical forms with the radical chaabi protest music of Morocco, with Algerian rai, and with the music of Western acts such as Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Dire Straits, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley.

The band's name has been translated as meaning "empty places."

But Ag Leche said it means simply "Deserts! In the Sahara, it is not one desert, but many different ones. At the origin, it is Taghraft Tinariwen, which means 'all deserts together.' ... Our music is the desert's respiration, in link with the ground and the stars."

Accordingly, the Tinariwen sound is deep and soulful, comforting and expansive, vast and intimate at the same time. It's distantly related to the blues, and it seriously rocks, but it also represents a beautiful, haunting indigenous folk music born of wandering the Sahara for decades.

Amid rebellion and uprising, they toured throughout Algeria and Libya—sometimes accepted by the prevailing governments, sometimes banned—often recording in secret and distributing their music via contraband cassette tape.

Since the turn of the century, the group has enjoyed more of an above-ground profile. Tinariwen has recorded several CDs, at least five of which are available in North America, including the recently heralded Tassili, released here by ANTI- Records.

Many Western listeners likely were introduced to Tinariwen as a result of the band's appearance on the 2003 compilation album Festival in the Desert. Thanks to the presence of Robert Plant, as well as familiar Malian artists such as Oumou Sangaré and Ali Farka Touré, that remarkable live CD brought many North African musicians to the attention of pop audiences.

If the new album is any indication, Tinariwen are attracting the attention of more hip musicians. Tassili includes guest appearances by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Nels Cline of Wilco, and TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe. According to publicity material, tapes of Tinariwen's music were mailed to the American artists, who overdubbed their contributions.

Such collaborations make sense, however, since the music of Tinariwen—despite its traditional nomadic origins—includes equal helpings of proto-ooze blues, a poetic balance of explosive emotion and cool regard, and an avant-garde sense of fuzzy distortion meeting hypnotic trance.

Other prominent fans of the group include Carlos Santana, U2's Bono and the Edge, Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Coldplay's Chris Martin, Damon Albarn of Gorillaz, Henry Rollins and Brian Eno—usual suspects when it comes to cutting-edge taste-making.

Tinariwen's journey has taken them far from their desert home, playing hundreds of concerts in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia since 2002.

Ag Leche said he finds music fans want many of the same things the world over. The group has traveled "from the extreme north of Scandinavia to the aboriginal people of Australia and the Indians of America."

"We don't want to forget the modern civilization because all populations are looking for authenticity in this sense of the social world, where the money makes people too crazy, whether it is with or without. Our music is to help them to feel free from this. All of us are looking on ourselves, to feel the real freedom everywhere in the world, to get common reality, to build our society."

He added that no amount of overseas fame can affect the attitudes of the Tinariwen members.

"Nothing could change how we are, as we are living the most simple way possible, are bringing the desert and inspiration everywhere with us, (and) are looking always for the good sense in the present. ... Also, we are trying always to be responsible and to find out all together how to help the world."

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