Sing Out Magazine, Tinariwen: From Guns to Guitars >>
From Guns to Guitars … Becoming the Voice of the Touaregs
By Anastasia Tsioulcas
Mali’s guitar band Tinariwen has traveled an unimaginable path to global fame: from refugee camps in Algeria and Libya to civil war in Mali and onwards to creating some of the world’s most beguiling, entrancing songs and rubbing shoulders with rock royalty like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. How they came to this point is a most unlikely story and one that guitarist and vocalist Abdoulahi Ag Alhousseini – whom everyone calls Abdallah – tells in tandem with the history of their people.
First, the name. The members of Tinariwen are most commonly referred to as Touaregs (or Tuaregs, in French); indeed, when speaking of themselves to outsiders, people in this ethnic group are likely to call themselves Touareg. This name, however, is thought to derive from an epithet that means “those abandoned by God” … despite the cheery ads for a Volkswagen model that also incorrectly instructs the public to pronounce the word ‘tour-egg’. On the plus side, however, Volkswagen has now become a corporate sponsor of an annual festival of Touareg music called the Festival in the Desert (much more on that later). Another popular label is the romantic “blue men of the desert,” a nod to the cloth that Tamashek men wear as veils, which has the tendency to bleed dye and therefore dye the wearers’ skin. However, these southern Saharan tribes refer to themselves as Tamashek, Imouharen, or Kel Tamashek (“people who speak Tamashek”).
Traditionally, the Touareg tribes were independent nomads, herding camels and goats as well as trading salt and slaves between sub-Saharan Africa up to the Mediterranean. When the French began colonizing northwest Africa, some of the greatest opposition came from the Touaregs, who already had a reputation as fearsome desert warriors. When independence came to the region in the late 1950s, the Touareg peoples and their lands were divided between the newly created nations of Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania and Chad. In all these nations, they were a minority population overseen by federal governments indifferent to their culture, their needs and their traditional ways of life. In Mali, the Tamasheks lived in the country’s north: far away from the official eyes that could witness their physical hardships, and far away from the relatively verdant south. Their areas were severely prone to drought and a world away from the few economic opportunities that even Bamako could offer.
“The conditions for the Tamashek were extremely difficult,” notes Abdallah. “The Tamashek had no rights, no economic standing and everything was done in a rather clandestine way. And these are very old, very profound problems – they are the same issues that already existed during the era of French colonialism; they weren’t born at independence. These problems are older than the nation!” he exclaims.
The relationship between rulers and ruled deteriorated rapidly, beginning with 1963’s Tamashek rebellion in Mali that ended brutally. By the early 1970s, a bad drought struck Tamashek areas and many Tamashek fled Mali for Algeria, Mauritania and Burkina Faso – a pattern of desperation that was to repeat itself over the next twenty years. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi, trying to build forces for his own use, invited the Touaregs to military training camps and coaxed them with promises of training, money and arms for their own struggle.
Touareg culture and the infrastructure of Tamashek society disintegrated quickly. Forced from nomadic life, the refugees had great difficulty in securing work – a situation worsened by the weak economies in the refugees’ host countries, such as during Algeria’s political crises. Young, angry and out of work, Tamashek men were dubbed ishumar, after the French word for “Unemployed” (chomeur). In their misery, the ishumar found succor in the idea if revolting against the federal government; lured into Qaddafi’s camps, they found ideas that connected their people’s problems with wider movements, such as pan-Africanism and Che Guevara’s revolution across the ocean. In those camps, the ishumar also heard new kinds of music – the rebel, outsider music of Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon.
One of the ishumar was Ibrahim Ag Alhabibe, who arrived at the camps from northeastern Mali in the early 1980s. As a young boy from the Iforas region, he had seen his father killed by Malian soldiers. “From childhood,” says Abdallah, “Ibrahim was always playing something. One day, he met someone with a guitar. Immediately, he thought that this would be good for him, and he negotiated with this person to buy the instrument, and that is how he came to own his first guitar. Of course, he didn’t have replacement strings, nor was there anyone around who knew how to play. But at the same time, he managed to learn to play and he soon was composing very interesting songs that told the history of the Touaregs and described their current exile, and the sufferings that come with exile, such as how the children couldn’t attend school, and the people’s economic problems.”
Ibrahim played with a few fellow music lovers, says Abdallah, “but they couldn’t find the thirty or so musicians necessary to play in the traditional style.” By dint of both necessity and their evolving political and social philosophies, Ibrahim – joined by Hassane Ag Atthuami, Kheddou Ag Ossad, and the late Entayaden, all of whom also came from the Iforas region – began shaping a new kind of Tamashek music, with the guitar at its core. This music became known tishoumaren, the music of the ishumar. Even the name of the group reflects their cultural identity; in Tamashek, “Tinariwen” means “deserts” or “empty places.” The musicians became increasingly devoted to playing, notes Abdullah, who later joined the group. “They practiced their instruments between military exercises, between lectures. They also managed to create a kind of practice room for themselves inside the camp.”
“You see the word ishumar on the front of our new album, Amassakoul,” Abdullah continues. “It’s no longer just a description of these unemployed young men, but it has come to express the idea of keeping one’s Tamashek identity.” That idea of self-creation plays an extremely important role in tishoumaren, the musician continues. “Our music keeps some sounds, some characteristics of traditional Tamashek music, but at the same time it contains the sound of revolt, of revolution,” he observes.
“We have the right to create modern music and to play non-traditional instruments,’ Abdallah stresses, “but at the same time we always have to defend our traditional image and a traditional sound. And although we play guitars, bass guitars and drums, we sing in the traditional manner, and we adopt certain characteristics of traditional music.” Indeed, although old instruments like the Shepard flute, teherdent lute, imzad fiddle and tindé drum were largely set aside in tishoumaren, the insistent, hypnotic rhythms remain, as does a deep love of poetry and the persuasive feeling of asouf, the sense of ultimate solitude that Tamashek poetry engenders and cultivates. (As Ibrahim writes in the song “Amassakoul ‘N’ Ténéré”: “I am a traveler in the lone desert/It’s nothing special/I can stand the wind/I can stand the thirst/And the sun … In the desert, flat and empty, /where nothing is given.”
“Music has always been an essential part of our culture, and formed the majority of communication between Touaregs,” says Abdallah. “Before 1995, most Touaregs couldn’t go to school; they learned from traditional songs. The songs addressed everyday, mundane problems, the problem of exile, the problems of returning home, the problems of educating children, the problems of finding work – all of this. Music played an extremely important role in discussing these issues.”
The simmering conflict came to a full boil in June 1990, when Nigerian soldiers massacred Touaregs in the town of Tchin Tabaraden, and all-out war soon followed. Young Touaregs attacked a town in northern Mali, near the Iforas regional capital of Kidal (the home area for Tinariwen), and their assault was outmatched ten to one by the Malian army. The Tinariwen musicians took an active part in his rebellion; famously, Kheddou Ag Ossad was shot seventeen times in warfare.
In the earl y 1990s, various peace initiatives were tried and failed, and the fighting grew increasingly worse. In 1991, Tamasheks in Mali issued a 21-point declaration that included demands for economic development of their areas, a multi-party democracy, a greater political role for their minority community and amnesty for their fighters. General-President Moussa Traoré, whose corrupt and weakening regime had been in power since 1968, signed a peace agreement, because his thinned-out troops in the far-flung north were needed back in the southern capital of Bamako to help bolster his control of the country. But this treaty (like others that followed) was a failure, and during this time, Tinariwen’s songs, articulating the hopes for Tamashek freedom and basic rights, circulated throughout the community via cassette.
Traoré’s government fell in the spring of 1991, and Mali started a transition into democracy, but without a resolution to the Tamashek issue. The violence continued to increase into 1994, but in 1995, worn out from fighting, both the governments of Mali and Niger brokered peace agreements that culminated on March 27th, 1996, when Tamashek fighters burned thousands of weapons in Timbuktu in a so-called “flame of peace.” Many Touaregs actually enlisted in the regular Malian army – including Tinariwen’s Kheddou, who later left the band – or took up posts in civilian administration.
By this time, the musicians of Tinariwen, along with many other Tamashek, began to realize that armed struggle was not necessarily justified, and may have even increased the suffering of their people. Speaking out via the media and though other means – including music – might well, they thought, actually draw greater international attention and pressure to end their plight. “We artists decided to pursue just being artists. We knew we could be a more effective voice for our people this way,” says Abdallah. “The only one of us who decided to stay in the military at all was Kheddou.”
Now based in Kidal, the post-war Tinariwen has had a tremendous impact – not just as a catalyst within their own community, but as Tamashek ambassadors around the world. In the early 1990s, the Tinariwen musicians had formed a friendship with the globetrotting, France-based band Lo’Jo, who had a deep interest in Malian music. “They really encouraged us to come to Europe, and helped us make connections there,” recalls Abdullah. Lo’jo and their manager Philippe Brix in turn helped Tinariwen and Efes – a Tamashek organization founded to encourage development in northern Mali – create a festival that would celebrate and promote Touareg culture.
The first “Festival au Desert” – Festival in the Desert – took place in 2001; with the participation of Lo’jo and British guitarist/producer Justin Adams, the event was filmed, and the initial festival attracted a few dozen European journalists, along with Malian politicos and dignitaries, such as the country’s prime minister, who saw the festival as the prime opportunity to promote cross-ethnic harmony.
Not all was sweetness and light, however; officials went out to Tin Essako, that year’s remote site, in convoys armed with ominously hovering machine guns, and the truck carrying three tons of PA and lighting equipment was ambushed and hijacked en route to the festival by armed Tamashek bandits. Regrettably for the hijackers, the truck also carried Tinariwen’s Kheddou – who at this point was a legendary fighter—and Kheddou peaceably negotiated the release of the truck and equipment. Kheddou reasonably pointed out for one thing, there was quite little the bandits could do with three tons of electric equipment in the middle of the Sahara; and, for a second reason, that he knew their families, who would certainly be displeased by the young men’s behavior.
A number of homegrown Touareg groups performed at the first Festival in the Desert; but already, the stars were Tinariwen. A second, smaller festival held in Tessalit, near the Algerian border, the following year; but excitement about the Festival in the Desert skyrocketed for the third annual event, which was held in essakane in January 2003. Eighty or so European and American journalists and musicians attended that year (including myself). To see Tinariwen and other Tamashek musicians playing for a “home” audience under the vast stretch of the limitless Saharan sky was an unforgettable thrill.
By this point, the festival in the Desert hosted not just a roster of exceptional Touareg performers, but also some of Mali’s most famous artists from outside the Tamashek community, like guitar legend Ali Farka Toure and the “Wossoulou songbird,” Oumou Sangare. (Another huge hit with concertgoers was the Navajo group Blackfire, from Arizona, who performed both traditional songs and dances as well as political punk that spoke to Native American issues both contemporary and historical. When one of the Blackfire singers mentioned to the assembled listeners that he felt they were kindred spirits as fellow desert dwellers whose culture had similarly been suppressed, the Tamashek applause and cheering was deafening.)
Lo’jo and Justin Adams played as well, and Adams had brought along a friend: singer Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame, in whose current band Adams was playing. Plant, in turn, loved what he heard at the festival; for decades, he had already had a deep interest in North and West African music. His enthusiastic talk of the festival to journalists upon returning home, combined with the American and European media’s extensive coverage and the superb live recording of festival highlights released by World Village (called, naturally enough, Festival in the Desert), created a perfect storm of enthusiasm about Tinariwen in particular and about Tamashek music and culture more broadly.
Tinariwen’s first international release, The radio Tisdas Sessions, had quietly been issued by World Village at the end of 2002. Greeted with significant critical acclaim, the album – recorded at the local Tamashek radio station during a period of rationed electricity – offered Tinariwen at their hypnotic best: guitars, bass and percussion, presented in the most elegantly simple way possible, in which the stark contours of the band’s sound evoked the harsh desert landscape called home.
According to Abdullah, the new album, Amassakoul, “had much more sophisticated production than our first recording.” Certainly, Tinariwen is playing with more musical ideas on their newest release: while their earthiness and grounding in Tamashek tradition remain rock-strong in songs like “Ténéré Dafeo Nickchan” (accompanied by tindé drum and t’zamârt flute as well as guitar) and the camel-stride rhythms of “Amidinin,” they experiment as well. One of the most striking examples of this exploration is Abdallah and Ibrahim’s politically conscious raps in “Arawan.” In the United States, Amassakoul is being greeted hungrily by critics, and the buzz on their first American tour (which took them to New York City, Ohio, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., Washington state and California in October and November) is enormous.
The musicians of Tinariwen see this growing fame as yet another opportunity to create international awareness about their people. “Today, the Touaregs’ relations with the federal government are better, it’s true,” Abdallah says seriously. “And we hope that our situation improves, but from my point of view the same problems – very profound problems – remain.” For Tinariwen, Making music is not just expressing timeless truths about love, loss, and life’s journeys; it’s a matter of survival. 11/01/04