A word with Tunisian musician Emel Mathlouthi

Your new album, Ensen, was recorded across seven countries and two continents. Why?

I was trying to look for creative people who would have enough openness to deal with all the different elements that constitute my music world. It was a quest.

Ensen’s central song, ‘Ensen Dhaif’, means ‘helpless human’. Is that how you feel?

Yes, definitely. From the time we are born, we are presented with a vision of how to be a ‘good human’, how to make your journey in the world: to be obedient, to follow the rules, to fit in. It’s completely the wrong conception because it doesn’t allow our creativity to develop. It doesn’t encourage our differences. The models we’re supposed to follow are drawn by a minority – a private club of people controlling their own interests.

A portrait of Emel Mathlouthi
A portrait of Emel Mathlouthi.

You write songs about personal and political pain. Are you sad when you look at the world around you?

I have melancholy in my work. I like to find refuge in art because it allows you to unravel your weakest sides with no judgement. It helps you draw deeper art and go further within yourself, and pushes your creativity.

Your song ‘Kelmti Horra’ (My Word Is Free) became an anthem during the Arab Spring and you were called ‘the voice of the Tunisian revolution’. Why do you think that song had such an impact?

I’ve always felt that that song had a lot of hope, that it was a song that kind of brought people together. I don’t have a lot of songs that are about hope. I’m more of a minor key person. That was the first song that was open melodically and emotionally.  

Did you experience censorship in Tunisia?

There’s always something working against freedom of expression – as a person, as an artist and as a woman nowadays, and not just in Tunisia. Growing up, there were a lot of expectations. You had to study well, behave, and look like everybody else. I had already chosen the path of the arts. I was a rebel against the traditions, the thoughts and the social structures.

You performed at the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. What was that like?

It was a fantastic experience. I love letting my voice explore the stage and I’m fond of big theatres. Ever since I composed the song, I envisioned having a big orchestra and choir and people singing it all together. It was very emotional to see that vision become reality.

Do you see yourself as a protest singer?

To be called a ‘protest singer’ is a big honour because it’s not something that anyone can pretend to be. But at the same time, it could be very restrictive. I see myself as a music producer, an innovator and a pioneer in what I’m doing.  

What good can a song do?

For me music is bigger even than religion. It is connected to nature, which is the biggest thing. Music fills you with so many feelings that nothing else can. It can give you strength, it can give you power, it can make you sad, it can give you trust and faith, it can give you hope. For me, the only truth we have is music.

What did the Arab Spring achieve?

I don’t have any thoughts about this at the moment. My biggest hope is that culture and art have their own revolutions in those countries because that’s the only way to change mentalities and the way societies function. 

Do you think, globally, we’re moving towards peace or away from it?

It’s both at the same time. The more we see violence, the more people question their conceptions. We have all these wonderful artistic and social movements in different parts of the world. People are coming back to see how we can connect together better and in a more meaningful way. 

Where do you feel most at home?

I happen to feel at home in Tunisia and in New York, where I live with my husband and daughter. I also like the concept of not owning any part in the world, just belonging to wherever is welcoming and where we feel creative and can explore ourselves. 

Emel’s new album Ensen is out now on Partisan Records. emelmathlouthi.com 

Graeme Green is a journalist and photographer for WanderlustThe GuardianThe Sunday Times and more. @greengraeme 

‘Migration will become a human right’ – Mohsin Hamid

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© Laurent Denimal

In your new novel, Exit West, you write: ‘Geography is destiny’...

In geopolitical terms, geography can be a matter of life and death. When relations between people start to break down, when suspicion and xenophobia grow, and when schisms start manifesting themselves, the exact location where you are from can take on deadly forms.

Very often, we experience political events in a particular way because of who we are. People aren’t necessarily bound by where they come from, but it has a very real impact.

I take a position that it’s not as simple as being ‘from Britain’ or being ‘from Pakistan’. I don’t think that because someone is British or Pakistani or Muslim or male or gay or whatever that that decides everything. But we have to acknowledge that there are some forces at work.

Exit West looks at the refugee crisis. Why did you want to tackle this issue?

It’s a central issue of our time. It has always been a central issue of all time. The movement of people, of migrants and refugees, has always been part of the human condition. What is perhaps different is the relatively recent notion about the boundaries of nation-states. In some ways, the borders of Pakistan or Britain or Germany or America are unnatural. The current crisis isn’t about people being refugees and migrants. The crisis is that we think of such movements of people as a crisis.

I think inevitably humanity is going to come to a place where the notion that people can move and choose where they live will be thought of as a right that is as fundamental as the right to speak as we want or worship as we want.

How do you think future generations will judge this moment in world history?

With a certain degree of horror at the way we have treated our fellow human beings. It will seem as abhorrent to us as having slaves looks to us now.

Opposition to migration is a fundamentally immoral position. We have built societies on the notion of democracy and individual rights and liberty. We are seeing our liberal democratic systems shudder under the weight of this hypocrisy: if we are unprepared to extend liberal democratic values beyond the boundaries of the nation-state, we are hypocrites. We can’t say that everyone is born equal and then treat as sub-human the people who come to our shores in desperate circumstances.

What good can the arts do?

Books can create an empathy for people who are different from ourselves. They broaden our sense of compassion.

One thing that art and literature can do is imagine futures for us. At the moment, we are seeing a failure of imagination. No-one is articulating plausible desirable futures for us as human beings. What we are hearing articulated is dystopias – that life will be terrible in the future – or vehemently nostalgic, divisive, chauvinistic visions from the likes of Donald Trump or the leaders of ISIS.

Ten years on, why do you think The Reluctant Fundamentalist had such an impact?

There was a lot of space in that book for readers to bring their own stereotypes and fears into play. I think it touched on something in our daily lives. We are often navigating the sense that we’re feeling afraid of someone without being sure if there’s a reason why. People responded to that.

Where do you feel most at home?

I don’t know if I feel particularly at home anywhere these days. It’s a strange situation. I was in San Francisco recently and spent time in the Bay Area where my father is a university professor. There was a sense of home there. I was meeting old friends and feeling nostalgic about spending time in California, but then I came to London, where I got married and my first daughter was born: the important things in my life. Lahore is where I live now. I move between London, America and Lahore. All three are my homes but none of them are entirely my home.

We often think about where we feel at home, but I have started thinking differently: when do you feel at home? As I get older, I feel less and less at home in the present moment. More and more, the past is where I feel most at home, which is, of course, gone. I’m always a little bit not-at-home in the present.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is out now, published by Hamish Hamilton. mohsinhamid.com

Graeme Green is a journalist and photographer for Wanderlust, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph and others. Twitter: @greengraeme

And Finally: Jason Williamson

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Sleaford Mods vocalist Jason Williamson. © PACIFIC PRESS/Alamy Stock Photo

Why all the shouting? Are you really hiding an angelic singing voice?

I’ve always been able to sing really well, but it never did me any favours and I found my own voice doing what I do with the rants.

I’ve since been working on trying to sing, though not the ‘Can I borrow a fucking emotion?’ kind, as my wife would call it. I’ve been trying to incorporate the singing. You get bored doing the same thing all the time.

How much do you spit out your lyrics as a stream of consciousness, and how much do you edit and craft them?

The stream of consciousness is a myth, really. You could say I write like that: I get into a flow and put random words next to other random words. But I go back, shape and edit all the time.

What can people expect from your new album? How is it different?

It’s more song-y. There’s a bit more colour to it, in the sense of a traditional song. Before, they have always been ranty or almost anti-singing when it came to the song structure.

You have said in the past that you are reluctant to be seen as a political band or a spokesperson for a cause. Have you become more political as the band has gone on?

By nature, we probably are a political band, and I can’t keep denying that. But we don’t have a mandate. I certainly don’t follow anybody any more [Jason was suspended from the Labour Party over an offensive Tweet about MP Dan Jarvis]. It’s more about our observations, a take on what you see around you.

I also worked on the Lost Dog film [about disability and benefit cuts] which I got into through a friend of mine, Andrew Tiernan, who was directing it. His idea was to do a film that centres on an individual who has suffered because of the Conservative Party cuts. I also agreed to do some campaigning with him to bring the message home. I don’t see any harm in that.

I’ve not got a lot of faith in the system: politics under the capitalist system, politics full stop. But then again I haven’t really got any real interest in anything else.

A lot of people are suffering when they don’t have to, and if it means dragging in a political party who could perhaps sort that out, I’m all for it.

You have been touring the UK at a time of Brexit and the Conservatives governing against a weak Labour Party. Do you see any signs of hope anywhere?

People are starting to get a bit more angry and stand up on their own feet. They’re forming groups, forming alliances. People are talking, so that is hopeful. But apart from that, no. It’s quite a bleak landscape.

Europe and the US have both swung to the Right. What are your thoughts on that?

The Austrian elections in 2016 were quite promising. It looked like the Far Right were going to get into power. The media coverage said they were a strong force. But they didn’t get in, which is good.

Regarding anywhere else, it’s pretty bad. At least, it looked for a while like [Britain’s Foreign Secretary] Boris Johnson might be losing his job. He needs to fuck off, really – maybe via a mincer.

Sleaford Mods’ new album English Tapas is out now on Rough Trade Records. sleafordmods.com

Graeme Green is a journalist and photographer for The Guardian, The Sunday Times, Wanderlust, National Geographic and more. @greengraeme

A word with Moby

Moby

 

Have you mellowed with age?

I don’t know about mellowing, but the concerns I had 10 or 20 years ago I don’t have any more: wanting fame, or wanting people I’ve never met to have good opinions about me. The world is filled with people who’ve lost a degree of fame and spend their life in bitterness. Thankfully, I’m pretty sanguine about the fact that my fame and pop-culture relevance has waned a lot.

When I look back on that period of my life, I see the insecurity and the alcoholism and the narcissism and the entitlement. Now, when I meet professional musicians who have that sense of self-importance, it feels distasteful to me. I want to pull them aside and say: ‘Let’s put this in perspective: you wrote a song. You didn’t figure out how to take humanity to Mars, you didn’t run a needle exchange, you didn’t come up with a cure for Ebola. You wrote a song.’

What was the impetus behind your new album, These Systems Are Failing, and associated ‘manifesto’?

I was listening to a lot of punk and post-punk that I grew up with, like The Damned, Killing Joke, Magazine, Theatre Of Hate, and I asked myself: ‘If I love listening to fast energetic post-punk, why am I not making a fast energetic post-punk record?’

There was something very emancipating about making records at a time when I don’t really expect too many people to buy them or listen to them. But I also like the idea of trying to use a record release to draw attention to issues I’m concerned about.

The lyrics sound angry…

There was definitely anger and frustration. In 2016 it’s hard to be a rational person and not feel frustration at what’s going on in the world. When I take a step back and I look at our species, it’s just so frustrating because we’re all behaving like such a bunch of idiots. In past generations, people did stupid things, but they didn’t know better. Our stupidity is potentially going to lead to the end of humanity and at the same time compromise life on this planet. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to figure out ways to be a little bit more of an activist with the music I make.

Your ‘manifesto’ has the line: ‘These systems were supposed to serve us, but instead they’re killing us.’ What systems do you mean?

One system that has passed its sell-by date is the way we feed ourselves, [producing meat by] cycling grain through animals and creating a product that contributes to climate change, causes heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, antibiotic resistance, ocean acidification, rainforest deforestation.

The other big one is the absurdity of our reliance on petroleum, when sustainable energy is such a phenomenal alternative.

But then you get to the more subjective systems, like how we entertain ourselves. It’s my ultimate hope that we start applying quasi-rational criteria to these things. Instead of just accepting these systems because they’re there, we could ask if they contribute to our wellbeing and the wellbeing of other creatures on our planet – or if we’re just going along with them because they’re convenient.

Do you think music and art can bring about change?

Everything is pushing society along in one direction or another, so I don’t see music and art as anything magically different from anything else that contributes to the zeitgeist. But sometimes a song can change the world. ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon… I believe that changed the world; it moved the needle a little bit. I can’t be so presumptuous as to say that any of my music would do that, but the goal is to wake up every day and try.

Moby & The Void Pacific Choir’s debut album, These Systems Are Failing, is out now. Moby's ‘manifesto’ can be found at moby.la/tsafmanifesto.

Graeme Green is a journalist, travel writer and photographer for international publications including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, National Geographic and Wanderlust. @greengraeme

And finally... Jay Griffiths

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© Ruth Lawrence

Who or what inspires you?

The biggest single thing that inspires me is language. Language is a constellation. Language is also a powerful, radical, living organism. It holds wisdom. The greatest public artwork in the world is language.

What are you politically interested in?

I believe in a politics of kindness. What goes with that is an environmental sensibility, ideas of social justice… Right now, it’s a respect for refugees and the importance of considering climate change in every political act. What I’m vehemently opposed to is the politics of cruelty, which was ably demonstrated by David Cameron and George Osbourne.

In your book, Tristimania, you’ve written about your experiences of manic depression. With no symptoms that are obvious to others, do you feel it’s often invisible?

That’s true. Part of the issue is the word is used so broadly. It covers everything from getting a car-parking ticket to feeling suicidal. That’s a problem. It’s like the difference between a headache and a migraine – people say once you’ve experienced a migraine, you know the difference. I think it’s the same with depression. It’s an agony on the inside.

How did it manifest for you?

It’s partly a kind of radical im­mobiliza­tion, the feeling that you’re made of lead, that you can’t do anything. It’s very much to do with connection and under-connection, not being able to communicate. That isolation can be absolutely terrifying.

Do you think there’s something specific in Western civilization that increases the chances of depression?

Yes. Many people live in very isolated ways. It sounds like a cliché, but the disconnect from the natural world has an effect. We’re leaning towards proper scientific evidence to suggest that the natural world is good for the psyche. That’s so obvious! Where I go running every morning, there’s a woodpecker who sometimes pecks at the wood of a telegraph pole and sometimes pecks at the metal, and when I see him doing that, he pops around the other side as if he’s really embarrassed. You can’t look at something like that without being amused. I would also say that the poverty currently experienced by many people in Britain is an issue, and young people facing a future with horrific debt and no chance of affording a home.

Some people might feel in the depths of depression that there’s no way back. What was the way back for you?

A lot of things. I had a good doctor. I had close friends around me. And I took medication. Walking the Camino de Santiago was helpful but incredibly difficult. It was embarrassing: I was just crying, leaking tears all over the place. But there’s something very powerful in that ancient pilgrimage idea. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in praying and I believe in walking. You get up, you eat, you walk, you sleep; you get up, eat and walk again. There’s a nomadic rhythm in that which I think is very healthy. But every person who feels their own depression has to use whatever is right for them.

How did you feel after hiking the Camino de Santiago?

Relief that it was over! It was agonizingly difficult. I felt so isolated, I found it difficult to be with myself or anybody else. To haul yourself across Spain when you’re weighted down with depression is difficult.

Have these feelings – melancholy, restlessness, searching – been at the centre of your books and travels?

I think it’s essential to what all writers do: ask questions. We’re always on a quest. That sense of keeping your mind mobile and maintaining your curiosity is ferociously important to the artistic process.

Where do you feel most at home?

On the one hand, I’d say it’s in my home, sitting by the wood stove. But I’d also say I feel at home outside, almost anywhere – as long as my gear is waterproof.

Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression by Jay Griffiths is out now, published by Hamish Hamilton. jaygriffiths.com

Graeme Green is a journalist, travel writer and photographer for The Sunday Times, Wanderlust and National Geographic. @greengraeme

A word with Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem

© Seth Wenig/AP/PA Images

What can you learn from life on the road that you can’t learn at home?

You become hyper-aware how unimaginably diverse the country you live in is. Television talks about the American people like they’re one lump. If you’re open to it and not just travelling in a bubble, the road forces you to live in the present. The dominant theme of the road is surprise.

You have said that travel and adventure were traditionally seen as male, home and hearth as female…

It’s still like that in parts of the world where women are not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative, or to leave the country without a husband’s or father’s written permission. That’s an extreme, of course. Yet even in the US, Canada, Europe and other places where we’re not legally restricted as women, the road is still seen as more dangerous. But statistically speaking the most dangerous place for a woman is her own home. In many places, a woman is more likely to be beaten or murdered in her own home than on the road.

What’s your first travel memory?

Travelling with my family in a house trailer across country from snowy Michigan towards Florida or California. It’s about that first moment when you see palm trees and smell the ocean. Getting out of the car and absorbing that new world, breathing in and seeing the magical ocean.

You’ve written about how, in the 1960s and 1970s, women’s rights, human rights, civil rights, race, sexuality and environmental issues were all connected. Have they become more separate?

I think we started out more distinct and individual. We’re more connected now. Not enough, mind you. We have to make many more connections.

Naomi Klein said that the success of the climate justice movement will depend on lots of different groups uniting.

Yes. We talk about global warming, as we must, but we rarely connect it with population and the fact that millions of women around the globe are being forced to have children they don’t want. Child marriage and too-early pregnancy are the first and second cause of death among teenage girls. Unwanted population growth is a root cause of global warming.

Have we lived up to the ideas of the 1960s and 1970s, or are you disappointed more hasn’t changed?

Both. I’d have been surprised then that all of our issues have become majority issues. Things like reproductive freedom for women, gay and lesbian rights… Those were extremely controversial at the time but now have support in the polls. But I would have been surprised to learn how imperfect our democracy is. Majority support does not mean success. Because so much of our political system is controlled by a small economic slice of the country, those things haven’t been translated into legislation, much less reality.

You’ve said: ‘We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.’ What effect would that have?

A huge and very deep effect. Just as women become more whole by venturing outside the home, men become whole by venturing inside the home and being raised to raise children. There are human qualities that are wrongly called ‘feminine’, just as there are qualities wrongly called ‘masculine’. Patience, empathy, attention to detail… We all have them all, but they are developed in women because we’re raised to raise children. There’s a great book by Dorothy Dinnerstein called The Mermaid and the Minotaur that will convince you that men raising children as much as women do is the key to world peace.

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem is out now, published by Oneworld.

Graeme Green is a journalist, travel writer and photographer for international publications including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, National Geographic and Wanderlust.

A word with Anjan Sundaram

Anjan Sundaram

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by people who live deeply and express that through their work, whether literature, music or film. When I feel an authenticity of emotional content in someone’s work, it moves me a great deal.

What issues are you politically passionate about?

Inequality. The free press. The ability of people to express themselves. I see self-expression as fundamental to who we are as human beings.

You’ve written about DR Congo before, and now Rwanda. What attracts you to these places?

I’m attracted to places where there’s great change and turmoil happening and where people cannot speak up, where people’s situations are relatively unreported. Congo had a war with very little reporting. In Rwanda, it’s outwardly stable; on the surface, you only see the narrative about the government’s success since the 1994 genocide, with ethnic reconciliation and economic growth, but the journalists I trained introduced me to a world where people were unable to speak up. There’s a strong undercurrent of repression.

Is Rwanda living under a dictatorship?

Absolutely. President Paul Kagame is extremely good at creating a façade. The repression of the free press and the silencing of any voices of dissent could very quickly turn into something far more violent and dangerous. The underlying forces that led to the genocide haven’t changed.

Could the situation blow up again?

I’d hesitate to say another genocide, but it’s clear that a true transfer of power from Kagame to anyone else is likely to be violent, given that he has destroyed every institution in the country that could smooth that transition. There’s no independent judiciary, no independent parliament, no independent press. Power resides in the hands of one man.

How difficult was it to run a journalist training programme in the country?

Over time it became very hard to operate or to receive any funding. Donors told us that the government saw any financing of the press as a threat to its rule. They made a choice to appease the government and have a seat at the table on the government’s terms, so they removed funding. It led to the demise of the programme. There are very few forums open now for journalism in Rwanda and very few journalists exercising their profession with any degree of freedom.

What are the dangers of there being no free press?

It’s extremely dangerous. Genocide is one example. During the genocide, there were people who stood up to the government and said: ‘This genocide is wrong. We should not be killing the Tutsis. The government’s policies are flawed.’ Those people were killed, imprisoned or exiled. Gradually, society was silenced until there was only one voice that people could hear: the government’s.

Is journalism worth risking your life for?

I’ve often wondered. But there’s something about the abuse of power that gets to me. When I see power being abused, there’s something that makes me want to expose it, to investigate it, to understand it. To turn my back on that: I would regret it. It’s a very personal decision. Each of us has to draw the line where we think it should be drawn.

Where do you feel most at home?

Probably in India – when I arrive there, I feel a sense of home. I haven’t lived in India much, so it’s an abstract, dissociative sense of home. But I travel a lot and I like to make my home wherever I am. That’s something that fuels my work. When I move to a place, I try to live as deeply and richly as I can in that place. I try to integrate into that society, to write and report from there.

Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship by Anjan Sundaram is published by Bloomsbury.

Graeme Green is a journalist, photographer, travel writer and editor. graemegreen.org

And finally... Susan Abulhawa

Susan Abulhawa

Your latest novel, The Blue Between Sky And Water, looks at Israel and Palestine as a generational issue. What has been handed down from generation to generation?

With every society, one’s heritage, wounds and collective trauma are handed down. It’s part of the identity.

How are things changing for each generation?

When a collective trauma has ended, when it’s acknowledged and atoned for, as in the case, for example, of the Jewish Holocaust, then it does change from one generation to another. In the case of African Americans, their holocaust was generations ago, but they still have a different kind of collective trauma. It’s the same for Palestinians: our initial expulsion, the ethnic cleansing and massacres were a different kind of experience for grandparents and parents. For us today, it varies not just by generation but where we ended up. For those who still live under Israeli occupation, the persistent daily violence is different from life for those Palestinians who live in refugee camps and are stateless and impoverished, or people like myself who ended up in the diaspora but disconnected from our family and heritage. There are a lot of individual narratives that feed into a larger narrative of being violated and ethnically cleansed.

Women’s stories and voices are the focus of the novel. Do you feel women’s voices have been sidelined in the Israel-Palestine issue?

Women are sidelined everywhere. Women fight profound daily battles against the violence of the occupation, against the patriarchy. It tends to occur without fanfare; it’s just a part of life. I’m very interested in the ways they navigate their lives under these extraordinary conditions.

Do you think there’s a difference between men’s and women’s attitudes to the conflict?

It’s not just a gender issue, but about being led by a particular privileged class of men, which is a theme in every country, including Palestine, and that’s problematic. You end up having a very narrow representation of narrative, of strategy, of outlook.

You’re the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine (PfP), a non-profit organization that sets up children’s parks in Palestine, as well as Libya and Syria. What effect does conflict have on children?

They’re traumatized in serious ways. In Gaza, 98.6 per cent of kids exhibit some symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s a staggering statistic. PfP is a band aid on a gushing wound. We don’t have illusions about what we do. But for the kids we’re able to help, we know it means a lot to them and that’s what keeps us going.

You’re also involved with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. Why do you think a boycott is the answer?

For me, anything that involves popular mobilization is hopeful. The boycott campaign is a tool and an avenue for everyone to take a stand in some way. It’s a nonviolent method of resisting an injustice that has gone on for too long and where there seems no end in sight.

Could more be done on the Palestinian side to push the peace process forward?

I know people talk about this in terms of two sides, but I don’t talk about it in that way. When people speak like that, it suggests that these are just two equal parties who disagree on something. It’s a false narrative. You have a highly armed nuclear power that uses its might against a principally unarmed, principally defenceless civilian population that has no military, no navy, no army, no air force and no real weapons to speak of; yet the focus is often on homemade Palestinian rockets that most often land in open fields. Israeli snipers routinely kill people in Gaza.

Israel makes 1.6 million people live under crippling economic, psychological and military siege but none of these things are spoken of as aggression: it’s only aggression when it’s a Palestinian response. By definition, everything an occupied people does is a response to the occupation, but it’s never framed that way in the media. That’s why I don’t engage in this discourse that tries to create a parity between an occupier and an occupied people.

The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa is published by Bloomsbury.
playgroundsforpalestine.org

Graeme Green is a journalist and photographer: @greengraeme

And finally... Meklit Hadero

Mekllit Hadero

Your family fled the violent revolution in Addis Ababa in 1974. What impact did that have on you?

You grow up with a mix of stories and silences. This is the legacy of any political upheaval. I left when I was two years old. I realized when I was 21 and visited the country for the first time as an adult that so many of my ideas of Ethiopia had been filtered through the stories of my parents, and I understood the country is much more than that. There were so many other aspects of the country and culture I didn’t know.

Where do you call home now?

I have three places I think of as home: Addis Ababa, Brooklyn in New York, where I did most of my growing up and which left a huge impression on me, and the Bay Area in San Francisco. I don’t think I could ever have one place as home. I don’t mean a house, but as a concept.

What makes you happy?

Music. Playing it and achieving the sense of complete abandon to the song, to the moment, to the interaction with other musicians. Losing the ‘I’, the sense of the ego, to the spontaneity and improvisation when you’re truly inside a song.

Can music help bring about change?

Yes. I think of myself as a singer, musician and cultural activist. I like to think about the ways that art and culture can be a vehicle for asking questions about where we’re at and where we want to go collectively.

What is The Nile Project hoping to achieve?

It was started in 2011 by myself and Mina Girgis, an Egyptian ethnomusicologist, from a place of cultural curiosity. In the diaspora in San Francisco and New York and London, we’re each other’s neighbours and friends, and it’s quite easy to be connected, but on the African continent it’s quite difficult to get to know one another. The project started as a way to bring together the music of the neighbours who share the Nile. When we started our research, we learned about the conflict over water. Right now things are pretty good between Nile Basin countries; Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt recently signed an agreement over how the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam is going to be managed and that’s a huge step forward. But earlier it was quite tense. We realized that a music project to bring together musicians from the Nile region had the potential to have a positive impact beyond music. We’ve had three residencies and an African tour of five of the Nile countries, and we just toured North America.

Water could be a more pressing issue than oil in the future, couldn’t it?

Yes, we depend on it. What’s interesting is that a lot of the time nervousness about water scarcity relates to questions of identity: who you share water with is about who is included when we talk about ‘we’. Music is quite an effective tool for addressing those identity issues.

You’ve also helped promote gender equality in Africa. Why do you think it’s so important?

I was part of UN Women’s theme song, ‘One Woman’, and inaugurated their campaign for gender equality in Africa with a concert in Addis Ababa. With the Nile Project, we were insistent from the beginning that the project had equal representation of women – not just singers, but composers and songwriters, too. When we’re talking about equal rights for women it’s very easy, especially in the eyes of the West, immediately to make an African woman a victim. But we’re saying there’s a generation of women who are coming up as leaders in their communities, breaking these barriers.

What’s your biggest fear?

In some ways, fear is about boundaries. When I think of fear, it is like an indicator that there’s a boundary for you, something you have to look out for, to be aware of, to pay attention to. So fear isn’t always a bad thing.

Meklit’s new album, We Are Alive, is out now on Six Degrees – meklitmusic.com
For more on The Nile Project, see new.nileproject.org
Graeme Green is a journalist and photographer: @greengraeme

Tinariwen's desert blues

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

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