David Byrd - Middle East Voices
Up against three other nominees, the Touareg group Tinariwen receives a Best World Music Album Grammy for its Tassili Desert Sessions at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles February 12.
Their beginnings come out of conflict and turmoil. Now they say they want their music to help build a new tomorrow for everyone who hears it. They are Tinariwen, a group of Touareg musicians.
Guns to Guitars
The group’s beginnings are in the Touareg rebellions of the 20th century in North Africa. A nomadic people known for their knowledge – and love of – the Sahara, the Touaregs have fought for their own homeland since the early 20th century. It was in the 1963 rebellion that Tinariwen group leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib saw his own father shot to death by the Malian military. The family fled to Algeria.
In Algeria, Ibrahim saw a Western movie where the star played a guitar, and was fascinated with the instrument. He even tried to fashion one of his own out of a tin can and a stick. In 1979, while working in Tamanrasset, Southern Algeria, he got his hands on a real guitar. An Arab man would walk past the young Tuareg every day on his way to a small hill where he would play the guitar and sing. Seeing Ibrahim’s interest, the man offered to let him play the guitar in exchange for work. Eventually Ibrahim bought the guitar and began to make his own music.
But his path to musical acclaim took a turn through military camps in Libya, and fighting in the Tuareg rebellions in Mali and Niger in the 1980s. It was in those camps that he also met several of his band mates in Tinariwen.
Ibrahim and Tinariwen used to play at social gatherings but even in a social context, their songs spoke of life in their beloved Sahara, and a deep longing for freedom. Some of these songs were recorded and cassette tapes were copied and spread through the Tuareg refugee camps. Tinariwen’s popularity had to be underground – possessing or listening to their cassettes could lead to imprisonment in Mali and Niger.
It was only when a peace accord was signed in 1994 that Tinariwen were openly acknowledged as spokesmen of a generation of Tuaregs struggling against poverty, famine, deprivation, and displacement.
Eventually Tinariwen’s music spread beyond the camps, and the group appeared at major music festivals, including the Eucokéennes de Belfort in France, Glastonbury in Scotland, the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and Coachella in Indio, California. Their sound attracted mainstream artists like Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, and Carlos Santana. But success has not changed the spirit of the group – their hearts are still in the Sahara.
Back to Their Roots
Their latest CD “Tassili” was recorded in late 2010 at a massif in southern Algeria because their normal recording base was not considered safe for foreigners. It was also one of their places of refuge during their former days as militants.
The group spent several weeks camping amongst the sandstone and the limestone and the desert sand. Group members said that most of the songs on the new album came from a night of making music around a campfire. (For this report, Tinariwen answered questions by email).
“In general all the songs (on Tassili) came from a night of trance,” they said. “The place was most safe at this time, but it was [also] to find a lot of friends in this part of the Sahara where we lived during a long period of exile. [It’s] also where we played at Tinariwen’s beginning,” they added.
Many of the songs on Tassili speak of life in the desert – of a life loved and lost. The opening track “Imidiwan Ma Tenam” asks the question that overarches the rest of the album:
What have you got to say, my friends
about this painful time we’re living through?
You’ve left this desert where you say you were born,
you’ve gone and abandoned it.
Another track – “Tenere Taqhim Toassam” – translates as “Jealous Desert” and features Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of the group TV on the Radio on guitar and vocals.
Oh, Tenere! A Jealous Desert!
Why can’t you see? You are a treasure
I’ve seen the world, I love you better
You are the treasure of my soul.
Other artists featured on the CD include Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Tinariwen says the idea grew out of the relationship they had with guest artists.
“The idea came after a few meetings with the artists, the excitation to exchange our spirit, to feel this in our disc,” they said. “As you are welcome in the desert! The trip together in the Sahara was a successful ambiance,” they added.
And what was their hope? “To feel how we are, simply, to be free,” they said. When asked about a current Touareg conflict in Mali, group members said they hope their music will inspire peace, not strife.
“Our music is more to help to calm the spirits in the different generations, the desire for freedom not cross the way of war!” Tinariwen said. “We are very afraid for all that’s happening in Sahara,” the musicians added.
A lifestyle in danger
Tinariwen’s fears could be justified. Dr. Tom Seligman is the Emeritus Curator of the Cantor Museum at Stanford and an expert on Tuareg culture. He says that life in the Sahara has become very complicated.
“I mean the U.S., the Chinese, the French have got mining interests all over that place,” he said. We’ve got AFRICOM in there with Blackhawk helicopters helping the governments try to run down the Touareg, etc., etc., so it’s not been a good scene,” Seligman added.
Seligman says the current unrest in Mali could also threaten the desert life Tinariwen sings about. He said many in the West only know of Touaregs through National Geographic Magazine or the Discovery Channel. Seligman added that fans might love Tinariwen’s music, but he hopes people will take the time to read the lyrics of their songs, all of which are performed in Tamashek, a Tuareg dialect.
“A lot of people hear them and they don’t have the CD or the liner notes to be able to read the lyrics with so they don’t know what’s being said, they’re just moved by the music. But the lyrics are key to know what Tinariwen’s about,” Seligman added.
For their part, Tinariwen says that while being nominated for a Grammy is an honor, they hope the public takes away something more from their recording:
“We wish to speak with all humanity how to build the world for tomorrow.”