New Internationalist

Tinariwen’s desert blues

July 2014

The bass player, composer and songwriter with Malian ‘desert blues’ band Tinariwen talks about his first guitar, instability in Mali and his hopes for an autonomous Tuareg territory.

On the move: Tinariwen, with Eyadou on the far left, are touring for the next two years.

What’s your earliest memory?

Listening to tinde in Mali. Tinde is a traditional Tuareg music with percussion and female vocals. I also remember when I got my first guitar. I have an uncle who said to me, ‘If you can sing one of Tinariwen’s songs [the original band formed in 1979], I will offer you a guitar.’ I remember just singing the song and getting my first guitar.

What are you politically passionate about?

Azawad. This is the name of the Tuareg territory [in north Mali]. The Tuareg territory has to be autonomous. I’m here for that. It is the most important thing: to create this territory and to live with freedom. I’m living my life for this reason.

Who inspires you?

Ibrahim [AG Habib, senior founding member of Tinariwen] because I knew his music from when I was born. I always wanted to realize myself with Ibrahim’s music.

What’s your biggest fear?

Ten years ago, I was with the band in Mali driving in some cars and we were shot at by a Malian helicopter. We had to run, with the tour manager, to hide ourselves. I’d never had this kind of fear before. It’s okay now. I don’t mind hearing a helicopter. But I often think about this moment because it was something really emotional.

There are four songwriters in Tinariwen. How do you go about writing songs?

Usually, we have one of the songwriters, either Ibrahim, Hassan, Abdallah or me, who has a song, the lyrics, and the main parts of the music. We discuss together and build the song, mainly with me and the other member of the group. But it always starts from a singer-songwriter.

Is the song-writing process a ‘working democracy’ or a ‘dictatorship’?

We decide the arrangements together, but in terms of the songs, it’s completely free. Anybody is free to write a song and, at the end, everybody decides whether to keep the song on the album or not.

Can political or protest songs make a difference?

For our people, the Tuareg people, music is really important. It’s something that can help our people to resist and to take care of our problems.

What are you working on next?

I don’t know yet! We have two years of touring ahead of us first.

Two years on the road? That sounds tough.

It’s tiring, but it’s okay. We like to play to many people around the world.

Would you like to be able to play more at home in Mali?

It’s actually really important to play outside of Mali. It’s important for us to play more and more around the world to raise consciousness about the problem we have in our territory.

It is difficult for the band to play in Mali itself…

It can be really dangerous to play in our territory because if Tinariwen play in the north of Mali, there will be a lot of people there from the Tuareg community. It’s too dangerous to have everybody gathered in the same place. We don’t trust the administration.

Where do you feel most at home?

When I’m in my home! With my family in Tamanrasset [southern Algeria]. My year is divided up, half and half – half of the time on the road and half of the time at home.

If you could banish one person from the earth, who would it be?

It’s very difficult to think of one person. [Long pause] I’d have to say terrorists. Terrorism around the world is bringing sadness and disaster. I don’t know one particular person or group but my choice would be to remove the act of terrorism. Bush [George W] has gone, so maybe it’s already done [laughs]. Tinariwen is a band for peace.

Tinariwen’s new album, Emmaar, is out now on Wedge. The band will be playing at the Latitude festival in Suffolk (17-20 July) and at the End Of The Road festival in Dorset (29-31 August). tinariwen.com

Graeme Green is a freelance journalist and photographer. graemegreen.org

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 474 This column was published in the July 2014 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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