Tinariwen :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

In 1979, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib founded the Tuareg collective Tinariwen. Since its emergence onto the global stage more than 20 years ago, the group has been synonymous with nomadism. It’s not just a consistent touring schedule that’s kept the group on the road: nearly constant upheaval and violence in the group’s homeland of Mali has meant that for much of Tinariwen’s existence, its members lived on the move—often in political or cultural exile.

Tellingly, the band’s eighth album, Amadjar, was conceived over the course of a journey. Following an appearance at the Taragalte Festival in the Moroccan Sahara in 2018, the group traveled to Mauritania, trailed by their French production team, in a converted camper van/mobile studio. Songs came together during this road trip in a traditional Tamasheq manner, built up through conversations and playing around campfires. Finally, Tinwariwen settled outside the capital city Nouakchott, where its members, joined by guest performers Noura Mint Seymali and Jeiche Ould Chigaly, recorded the bulk of the record over the course of two weeks. Afterward, a host of players contributed overdubs, including Cass McCombs, Bad Seed Warren Ellis, Micah Nelson of Neil Young’s Promise of the Real, Rodolphe Burger, and drone architect Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))).

The result is a record that recalls Tinariwen’s rural roots, long before it was a worldwide name. As on 2011’s Tassili and 2014’s Emmaar, the Westerners accompanyists add subtle and enriching touches (particularly Ellis, whose washes of sound add mournful depth). But the main draw, as ever, is the tangled web of Tuareg blues guitars, and the searching, pained lyricism. “My friend I beg of you, let’s speak with one voice/These last few years, I’ve journeyed without my saddle/No one offers me a meal anymore,” read the translated lyrics of “Takount.” As always, Tinariwen sing of an open world, addressing both the wonder and weariness it inspires.

Aquarium Drunkard: Much of Tinariwen’s existence has been marked by travel, by moving on and setting up wherever you all can to make music. With that in mind, does the music itself begin to feel like “home,” a constant “setting” for you all when your physical location is always changing?

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib: Music feels different depending on the setting. The same Tinariwen song heard at a wedding in Tessalit and in a theatre in Washington DC won’t feel the same. Most of the time when we record albums we look for natural, calm, and peaceful settings.

AD: Amadjar sounds feels especially naturalistic and live. Was the aim to record in a format similar to the band’s earliest settings, when music was performed together communally?

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib: This is still the way we play today, when we are home. In the desert, around campfires, where the air is good, you get a great sense of tranquility, freedom, and the music comes easily.

AD: Growing up, the music of the West was important to the band: Santana, Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits. How did you listen to this music, and what about it spoke to your ears?

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib: Through cassettes that travelers or friends would bring to us in the North (Kidal) from the South (Bamako) or from abroad. We used to only listen to traditional Tuareg music, discovering the music from the West was great and inspired us, especially the sound and the guitar playing.

AD: What has working with outside guests brought to the music of Tinariwen?

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib: Everything you bring to your music can be interesting and create new forms. Whether it comes from your part of the world or not. Some instruments and scales work well with our music even if it’s from the other side of the world. It’s physics. We have common notes, tonalities, harmonies. Also we all play electric guitar…you plug it and it makes electric noise.

AD: How long does it usually take for a guest to get the “feel” of what you do?

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib: Good musicians have good intuitions! Obviously it can be more complicated for Occidentals, but when you know each other’s music it’s not that hard. I remember Carlos Santana on stage…no rehearsals, but he managed to find his place right away.

AD: In the US and UK, there’s been increased hostility toward migrants—this has been marked by human rights abuses here in the US. “Amadjar” means “the unknown visitor”; what do you hope Western audiences might take away from the stories here about the plight of the oppressed?

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib: Amadjar means “the foreign traveler.” [It’s a reference to] an old Tuareg nomad tradition saying that if you meet a traveler, you have to welcome him home, give him some tea, some food, and a place to sleep. Hospitality…with all the problems in our desert and in the world, it is more and more difficult to keep this tradition because more and more people are suffering with no home and no land.

AD: Tinariwen was an unofficial name for the group at first, but “the desert” is essential to the band’s story. In “Tenere Maloulat,” the words sung (translated to English) are: “I’ve become the son of gazelles, who grew up in the meandering of the desert.” The desert means many things to different people, but for me here in the American Southwest, it signifies openness and freedom. As the band has traveled the world, its often found itself recording in deserts (including Joshua Tree and Morocco). What does the desert represent to Tinariwen?

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib: The sum of all the deserts in the world feel like a country to Tinariwen. In every desert, we feel home, like it’s our land. It’s a strange sensation, in a good way. I think it has to do with the connection with nature, landscapes, and the power of the elements. words/j woodbury

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