Sons of the Desert
From Mali to Algeria to Libya, the nomadic members of rock group Tinariwen have honed themselves into brilliant musicians while continuing the good fight for the survival of their Tuareg culture. Jim Carroll meets founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib
He tea keeps coming. As soon as you finish one, another little glass of frothy, bittersweet black tea appears at your elbow from the man with the kettle. All interviews, you think, need a man with a kettle.
All interviews, you also think, would be a lot more interesting if the act in question opted to sit under the bushes of a city-centre park rather than in the bland suite of a blander hotel.
The Tinariwen bus is parked under a tree in a corner of Parc Belleville on a sweltering Parisian day when the sun is baking everything in sight. Beside it, under the bushes, a couple of band members are sheltering from the sun and waiting for the tea to be made.
There's talk about going to a neighbourhood café to do the interview, but there's little movement from the band. This might have to do with the heat, the tea or the industrial-strength hash that's been puffed. No one, it seems, is going anywhere in a hurry. When you've waited 20 years to get this far, there's no need to hurry.
The story of nomadic rebels Tinariwen is a tale you just couldn't make up. The next time someone tries to convince you that such lightweights as The Libertines or Razorlight are really rock 'n' roll, you should introduce them to Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. The co-founder of the band emerged from Colonel Gadafy's guerrilla training camps in Libya in the early 1980s, a Kalashnikov rifle in one hand and a Stratocaster guitar in the other.
He says he had no idea what he was doing when he first picked up the guitar. But listen to his playing on the band's new album, Amassakoul, and you'll realise he was a quick learner. Here is a master at work, a guitarist producing a sound which reinvents everything you know about rock and blues and makes it sound a hundred times better.
The road which led Ag Alhabib to the guitar involved a lot of heartache, a lot of history and a lot of sand. One of the Tuareg clan who fled Mali after the government tried to impose law and order on that nomadic people, Ag Alhabib drifted across the Sahara from Mali to Algeria and into Libya.
There, in one of the guerrilla camps alongside other rebels who'd found their way to Libya, he learned how to fire a rifle by day and play the guitar by night.
"Gadafy's idea was to take all these boys who didn't belong anywhere and teach them how to fight," explains Ag Alhabib through a translator, band producer Philippe Brix. "When you have nothing to do and you arrive in a place where you are welcomed with open arms and food and training, you feel great. It was in those camps that we came across the first guitars because there were staff there who played guitar."
Together with other Tuaregs, he formed Tinariwen and they began to write songs about the situation they found themselves in. There's a song on the current album called Chet Boghassa, for instance, which comes from those days. It's about a Tuareg rebel raid on a military post in the Mali village of Boghassa. Ag Alhabib was one of the lucky ones: he survived the raid, but 30 or 40 people died that day.
What Tinariwen wrote was rebel music with a cause. Recorded on battered ghetto-blasters and distributed on cassettes which wheezed and rattled from overuse, Tinariwen's music roamed the three-and-a-half-million square miles of the Sahara desert with news of the Tuareg struggle and resistance. In Mali, to even possess a Tinariwen cassette at that time was considered a crime. As they played at parties in the Libyan camps to fellow exiles, Tinariwen's tales of hardship, struggle and loss struck many chords.
Besides the words, the music was also fascinating. Ag Alhabib says he had never heard of Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley, but when he picked up the guitar, it seemed to him to be the most natural thing in the world. "We were doing it in our own style," he says. "There weren't any outside influences - it was our own thing from the very start. The songs we were writing came from how we were living. For Tuaregs, it was a completely new experience to be in exile, and a lot of the songs were about us trying to adjust to that situation." Over the past 20 years, many different members have come and gone, leaving behind songs as they went. New musicians would then arrive, play the existing songs and reinvent them again so that Tinariwen's political protests continued to criss-cross the Sahara.
In the meantime, Mali was changing. In 1996, the "Flame of Peace" disarmament bonfire marked the end of decades of civil war and former Tuareg rebels were able to come home. Life for Ag Alhabib and friends improved, even if there were now other concerns. "There are always problems, but when you go to Mali now, you can feel it's a new time, it's really exciting to see the exchanges going on between the north and the south of the country."
One of those exchanges was the Festival in the Desert. Initiated in 2001 by the band with assistance from Ali Farka Toure, the festival didn't just bring north and south together, but it also brought western music fans and the likes of Robert Plant by Landrover and camel over the Sahara to the most spectacular music festival of them all.
More than anything else, Tinariwen's appearances at the Festival in the Desert led them to their new audience and growing popularity. While they had recorded the Radio Tisdas Sessions album in December 2000 (using a radio studio in Kidal during the five hours a day when electricity was available in the town), it's the massive publicity generated by the festival, each review mentioning the band and its spellbinding performance, which has spread their name beyond Mali.
Back in Paris later that evening, Tinariwen perform a free concert in the park as part of the Quartier d'Été festival. It's perhaps one of the most evocative, spectacular and infectious live shows seen all year. Onstage, all wearing long robes and headscarves, there are three guitarists, a bassist, a percussionist and a female singer. The music is hypnotic and funky, messing with the blues but maintaining a constant funky rhythm throughout. It really does sound like nothing else on earth.
It also looks like nothing else on earth, especially when the stage is invaded by similarly attired dancers from the audience, while a magnificently berobed Tuareg dignitary stands sentry behind the stage.
Bands like The White Stripes may have reintroduced an aspect of the blues to a mainstream audience, yet the aching melancholy and wistfulness of Tinariwen's seductive, swirling desert blues is something else again entirely. This is a sound which could only have come from a place where few people have gone before.
For Ag Alhabib and Tinariwen, success means that a new life has begun for them. They are now in a world of concerts, schedules and promotion, a world where it is perfectly normal to do an interview with an Irish journalist under bushes in a Parisian park on a very hot afternoon.
"One day, you're a nomad and you know nothing about studios or recording technology," he says with a smile. "The next day, you're in a studio and you're supposed to be doing an album or you are talking to someone you have never met before about your life. It's totally the opposite to how we have lived and it is sometimes hard, but I think it is working well."
Why it is working is quite simple. "We are still fighting for our culture, we are still mixing the traditional and the modern together. But we are proud because now more people are finding out about us and our culture. And we are beginning to find out about our place in the world."
• Amassakoul is out now