Tinariwen – The Camel’s Back

Tinariwen are one of only two bands to have their own Minister of Propaganda. Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav is now better known for his MTV show where very driven young ladies battle to win his attention. In contrast, the rather more earnest Issa Dicko is
concerned with the survival of the Tamasheq (Tuareg) people. Tinariwen is more of a popular movement than a band

The thing about Tinariwen is that they are not quite a band, or at least not what we mean in the west by a band. For example there is no fixed number of members, only a generally held view as to who tends to be more essential than who. On this basis, you might become a ‘band member’ because you can drive a 4×4 across the desert through the night.

Ibrahim was the rebel leader’s driver for a time and apparently they carried Kalashnikovs in their arms and Stratocasters on their backs as they went into battle. Bollocks.

Andy Morgan their English manager, who lives and breathes the band, is certainly a member of the band while their lead singer and founder Ibrahim (pictured above) seems barely interested in the band for the two gigs in Mali I see him play at. Andy warns me though that, “You mustn’t mistake Ibrahim’s taciturn ways for a disinterest in Tinariwen. He’s the heart and soul of the band, and everybody involved knows and accepts this. Ibrahim is an extremely complex bloke, full of emotional turmoil, but also of sweetness, generosity and honesty. I’ve never known someone to be so free of irony or malice.”
Carrying both those gigs and proving himself to be just as ebullient in person is fellow founder Alhassane Ag Touhami aqka Hassan (see photo below). While Ibrahim with his trademark afro looks as rock and roll as Sly Stone, Hassan is softly spoken and his eyes sparkle with humour and intelligence. Is his nickname ‘Lion of the Desert’ a reflection of inner strength, a throwback to terrifying deeds done as a young man or just the irony of a people whose life involves copious amounts of tea and mocking humour (a bit like the Irish but with camels)? Who knows?
tinariwen - hassanIn fact, there is so much known about this band and yet so little is known for sure. We know of course that they were involved in the Tuareg liberation movement of the 90s and they spent time in Colonel Gaddafi’s camps. Ibrahim was the rebel leader’s driver for a time and apparently they carried Kalashnikovs in their arms and Stratocasters on their backs as they went into battle. Bollocks. At least bollocks to the idea of anyone being stupid enough to spring out of a 4×4 in a skirmish with a bloody guitar slung around their back.
Whatever they did or did not do in battle (and since the war was only ended a decade ago, it would be pretty unwise to go into too much detail of their activities), the significance of the band always rested with the music. “We didn’t have any songs of peace when we were fighters in Libya. Our music was a call to arms, it was all about raising awareness,” admits Hassan. Unsurprisingly, even possessing one of their tapes was a serious offence, but nonetheless home taping did no harm to these pirates of the desert and their heavy sound spread across the Sahara.

“Arms will not solve our problems. After the war ended, we needed a new message about unity and development. On a personal level, we had stories to tell of longing and exile.”

The last thing you see as you leave Timbuktu bound for the festival is a monument composed of hundreds of Kalashnikovs. It was here that the rebellion formally ended with a new pact between the south and the Tuaregs of the north. There is not much love lost still though. Black southerners talk bitterly of the Tamasheq as if the practice of slavery was still going on and the utter desolation of much of the north fuels local resentment that the government in the south has little interest in helping them out.
Last year, a minor skirmish occurred reviving memories of the war but no one I spoke to seemed to take it very seriously. Stories emerged of Tuaregs dusting off Al-Qaeda guerillas fleeing from Algeria and when I met the British Ambassador he was resolutely keeping his warning for anyone travelling north of Timbuktu. (see Andy’s note below for more detail).

Tamasheq culture will be that little bit safer, that little bit harder to snuff out without a protest

According to Hassan though, it is pretty obvious that, “Arms will not solve our problems. After the war ended, we needed a new message about unity and development. On a personal level, we had stories to tell of longing and exile.” Telling those stories to an international audience of course raises the paradox of speaking to someone in a language they cannot understand. For Tinariwen this is a non-issue, though as they assert, “it’s a question of feeling, melody and attitude. Music works on many levels and that is why anyone can listen to Tinariwen and Tinariwen can listen to anyone else.”
Two years ago, I was backstage at WOMAD and noticed that a couple of members of Tinariwen were eschewing the free drinks tent for performers and sat behind a small tent brewing their own over a camping stove. A few weeks ago when Fly journalist Katharina was looking into them playing in Senegal, their manager Andy said they didn’t want individual rooms as they preferred to hang out together. TInariwen is a family. They take the desert with them.
If their new album Aman Iman: Water is Life sells by the crateload, Ibrahim will probably wander off for a while with a portable studio recording traditional sounds, others will ramp up their educational and social work, they also talk of launching another desert festival. Tamasheq culture will be that little bit safer, that little bit harder to snuff out without a protest and the band will rack up a few million airmiles between them. And if not? One gets the feeling that they will do exactly the same as they have always done, they’ll make the most of what they have.
Aman Iman: Water is Life is out now on Independiente
–Main photo is of Ibrahim backstage at this year’s Festival au Desert by Cicily Scott, inline image of Hassan by Damian Rafferty–
The Festival in the Desert 2007 – Essakane, Mali
See photos of Tinariwen at The Festival in the Desert 2007 and Tinariwen at the Festival sur le Niger
UK Tour Dates:
1st May: BRIGHTON, Komedia (01273 647100)
2nd May: GATESHEAD, Sage 1 (0191 443 4661)
3rd May: BRISTOL, Fiddlers (0117 9299008)
4th May: LEICESTER, De Montfort Hall (0116 233 3111)
5th May: LIVERPOOL, Philharmonic Hall (0151 709 3789)
6th May: COVENTRY, Warwick Arts Centre

8 thoughts on “Tinariwen – The Camel’s Back

  1. The clashes between Al-Qaida Maghreb (as it’s been recently re-branded) and the Touareg ADC movement are very real. The ambush north of Arawan late last year left 5 Touareg militamen dead, including one v. good friend of one of the band. The ADC killed two of Al Qaida’s most senior Emir’s in the southern Sahara. Al Qaida have threatened to blow up the house of the mayor of Tessalit. The point of all this is that the Malian government receive a huge amount of aid form the USA, in money and in kind, for counter-terrorism in the desert. But they don’t actually fight the fight, they only talk the talk. The only people actually fighting Al Qaida, and suffering as a consequence, are the Touareg rebel movement. And yet, some people still propagate the lie that the Touareg themselves are Al Qaida allies (see the article in Liberation following the attacks in Kidal of May last year).


  2. Great band, sublime music! Poor article!
    I came here through the link on Wikipedia, which btw doesn’t work [now fixed, Ed]. I found the article as yet through the search function, but what a disappointment; particularly given the author states he travelled all the way to Mali and categorizes his writing as a ‘feature’! Content leaves the reader thirsty and is, imo, tarred with unsubstantiated suppositions and allusions, contradictory statments and refutable errors.
    For instance, I suppose the writer knows of the image Gaddafi has in the Western world. This doesn’t prevent him, though, from associating Tinariwen with ‘Gaddafi’s camps’ without proberly explaining why, what or how(long)!
    Another example: The author calls the band ‘pirates of the desert’ but at the same time he seems baffled by the allegory that they ‘carried Kalashnikovs in their arms and Stratocasters on their backs’! He even calls it a ‘bullshit’! This figurative is, by the way, most probably true. Participating in a war doesn’t mean that one is fighting all the time but one should remain alert every moment of the day even while playing music. Hence…
    In short, what a claptrap!


  3. Gomar – Gaddafi sponsored a series of camps and allied himself with a wide range of resistance movements in an attempt to expand his influence in the region. One of those movements was the broader Touareg resistance movement spanning the several countries with Touareg populations. Members of the band met at one of these camps and were indeed actively involved in military operations.
    I can’t see where I said they were pirates of the desert but my point about the Kalashnikovs was not to over-romanticise the nature of civil war, which is always bitter, painful and compromised in practice and rarely heroic.


  4. ‘Cher Achel’ a track from their new album Aman Iman: Water Is Life is available this week for free as iTunes’ Single of the Week – but hurry…


  5. @ Damian: Its common knowledge that band members stayed in camps in Libya and participated in the Touareg rebellion. They have to talk about it practically in every interview they give. The point is, as I’ve already written here, it should be explained PROBERLY. Associating them with ‘Gaddafi camps’ without (brief) factual clarification did and does them a lot of damage and pain. They indeed resent this amalgamation with Gaddafi, all the more that some of them were maltreated in Libya exactly due to their dissidence towards Gaddafi’s expansionist philosophy!
    Btw, some members of the band knew each other and formed the original band “Taghreft Tinariwen” before they came to Libya. The band was consolidated in Libya as they were practically living together there while they saw each other only occasionally in the preceding periods.
    I don’t have a problem with your use of the metaphor ‘pirates of the desert’ (see ¬? 5 of this very article). I was just surprised you didn’t seem to understand the other symbolic expression. In Mali, people perceive immediately that the guitars and Klashnikovs primarily mean they’re fighting for their rights with weapons and with music. Nobody I know holds romantic notions about (civil) war. Tinariwen itself has, in fact, been constantly warning against (over)romanticization of conflict. You’re, thus, definitely right to join them. If these points were clear in your article, I most probably would have reacted differently. Have a nice day!


  6. Thanks, not sure how I missed my own pirate metaphor. It was supposed to be an allusion to a well-known (though possibly only in Britain) campaign in the seventies that went: “Home taping is killing music.” Hence the piracy angle. Not sure it was one of my best metaphor’s now:)
    I think the deficiencies in explaining the Gaddafi angle are covered off now in your comments.
    Anyway glad we came to a kind of agreement in the end!


  7. My experience of the north of Mali and the Tuaregs totally supports Andy Morgan’s view of how the Malian government distort the Tuareg issue. I am setting up trips into the Adrar des Iforas to support these Tuareg festivals. This year The Festival of Camels is taking place in Tessalit. For more information please visit http://www.fromhere2timbuktu.com


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