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?
In 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