"There's No Borders for Art": Watch Tinariwen's Video for "Sastanàqqàm"
The Touareg desert blues band return with their seventh record 'Elwan,' and we talk borders, displacement, and their hope for the future.
The thread of innovation that makes Touareg desert blues band, Tinariwen, adherents to a defiant tradition—and influencers of countless bands in their wake—is a long and fascinating one. What begins with folk music from nomadic people is transformed by the group's founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, after seeing a film with a Roy Orbison soundtrack. Alhabib was subsequently driven to build his own guitar, combining these ocean spanning roots with pop music from the surrounding Sahel regions. Then there was an apocryphal flood of cheap Jimi Hendrix and Dire Straits cassettes that poured into West Africa, helping mold the sound of his nascent group into its own singular droning picked guitar, hard-bopping sound. The sounds—a tough and meditative blues—understandably found ready ears far outside its birthplace in Northern Mali. Now, in Tinariwen's shadow, there are the band's children, groups like Imarhan and Tamikrest. Some are more hard rock, some groovier, some follow the template to a T, but all draw from the same impulses for rebellion and autonomy, those impulses that were the initial spark. However throughout, Tinariwen remain the first and the best.
Still in exile and far more nomadic than they'd choose, Tinariwen have a new album, Elwan, which they started recording in 2014 in Joshua Tree's Rancho De La Luna studio, alongside Kurt Vile, Matt Sweeney, and Alain Johaness. According to the band's bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, these additions offered "a completely different mood, jamming with other musicians than the core Tinariwen band." (Read my 2014 interview with Leche here.)
The record was completed two years later, in M'Hamid El Ghizlanein, a region in Southern Morocco near the Algerian border, where the band hunkered down with local and Berber trance musicians. "Recording in the desert is always very inspiring for us," explains Leche. "The natural environment of the dunes and the silence is great for recording. The local musicians where young kids from the small village close to the bivouac and Gnawas musicians from Zagora. It was great to meet other musical background coming from other part of the Sahara."
The music on Elwan, which is released today, isn't likely to confuse longtime fans of the band. The loping rhythms and chants remain, but the record is a concise encapsulation of what they've done before. Eyadou says, "When we are recording we have no plans. We don't know which songs we're gonna record, so usually the mood of the moment is captured."
On this seventh album, the quietude of Tassili (their 2011 album that features guest appearances from TV On The Radio) is adroitly combined with the driving edge of 2013's Emmaar. Even their 2015 Live In Paris album is reflected with a rerecording of "Tiwayyen." Live, this is performed furiously, culminating in controlled chaos, but here the delivery is taut and restrained and no less potent for it. (Leche adds: "Live playing is always another mood. the audience, the venue , the sound make us play our songs differently in term of tempo and energy. On records, we try to capture the best performance which serve the song.") Altogether the album can be taken as a reaffirmation of belief, a statement of intent amplified even in the face of perhaps unassailable forces.
The obstacles for Tinariwen—the main ones besides the normal human rigmarole—is that the autonomous region, Azawad, which they've been struggling to attain for decades is now not only still far out of reach, but also for the last five years, the entire region of Northern Mali has become untenably dangerous thanks to the of violence by both Jihadists and organized criminals. "There is not a lot of place where we can do shows in the Sahara nowadays, but we try to do it anyway..." explains Leche. And just when hope grows, it's almost immediately squashed by forces far out of an artist's control. Just last week a secretly planned and organized restarting of the legendary Festival In The Desert was cancelled at the last minute because of resurgence of violence by Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
I tell Leche that the themes of displacement remain from record to record. I ask how does one avoid despair? "Wow. We believe in fatality… we all hope the future will be better, but our people are waiting since 54 years now… so is really frustrating for us," he says. "But we still believe in peace and we hope our people will have a better live in the future."
I ask him if it's difficult to even maintain the basics of being a band under these circumstances and he tells me, "The lineup is always moving but the core band is still the same, it is always difficult to maintain because of the local situation in our lands, it is very difficult to travel from where we live to the closest airport! Sometimes it is too dangerous to travel, sometime the road is in a too bad condition to drive etc..."
Unable to contain my solipsism, even though we're here to premiere their video, I have to ask his thoughts on our recent unfortunate election and whether our current regime's preoccupation with border control is any concern to him. I also selfishly want to know if Tinariwen will be coming to the States. Leche responds: "Yes we have a tour coming in April! We are doing music for the public not for the administration. The American audience have the right to discover culture from all around the globe—there's no borders for art! We are coming from a culture, a place where there was no borders, the nomads like us use to travel all over the Sahara without any borders, it changed 50 years ago and the result is not really good as you can see in Africa."
Tinariwen have a new video for the song, "Sastanàqqàm." As I'm tempted to describe the video in terms related to the Slash solo outside the church in "November Rain," perhaps it's best to discuss it in the band's own words.
"A thousand miles from their homeland in northern Mali, across a vast expanse of desert, the music of Tinariwen has found shelter in the hearts of six young musicians from M'hamid el Ghizlane. They were only boys when the desert rockers first visited their home, back in 2006, but they saw an immediate reflection of their own dreams and aspirations in the music they heard. In the years that followed they learned the Tinariwen songbook note for note, word for word, even though they couldn't speak a word of Tamashek, the language of the Touareg.
"When Tinariwen returned to M'hamid in 2016 to record a new album, those young disciples from M'hamid had achieved a remarkable mastery of the desert guitar repertoire. The torch had been passed from hand to hand and heart to heart across the great desert. The young musicians from M'hamid were invited to perform Abdallah's 'Sastaqanam,' standing in for their older brothers and playing with uncanny fidelity. But first the members of Tinariwen wrapped new turbans around the heads of their young acolytes, marking not only the passage from boyhood to manhood according to ancient desert custom, but also the transmission of their music across the generations, a transmission that is taking place in the hearts of youth from every corner of the great Sahara."