Friday, April 20, 2007

Michael Kessler interviews Tinariwen's members.

It has to be the most fascinating music story going around - a group of Touareg nomads from the Sahara Desert in northern Mali, faced with state persecution, flee to Libya. Some end up in Colonel Gaddafi's military training camps, where they record a set of underground cassettes.

Their music echoes over the sands like a siren and, heard by scores of exiled Touaregs in neighbouring Nigeria and Algeria, they become the voice and sound of a movement - the ishumar, the Sahara's Generation X.

They return to their homeland to mount a brief but violent rebellion. In 1990, they broker a peace deal with the Malian government. In 1991, they lay down their rifles. For guitars.

Tinariwen's music has won lavish praise. "The best rock'n'roll band in the world," said The Financial Times. "Sounds like a mirage: Keith Richards, Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder picking together," waxed Rolling Stone. "The kind of band that generations of Western rebel rockers could only dream of being," dared The Guardian.

In essence, it's a gentle desert blues, a sunrise-to-sunset trance on the pull of the land, human loss and the struggle of the Touareg. Indeed, as more than one critic has pointed out, this is perhaps where the blues as we know it came from.

Only Tinariwen would call it something different. "I got interested in music as a way of expressing how I felt about my past, my heritage," says Ibrahim Ag Halbib, lead singer and guitarist. "That sense of nostalgic longing, of loneliness, and suffering is our assouf, our blues."

Tinariwen's music is, as Led Zeppelin muso Robert Plant put it, "like falling in a well". The analogy functions on a number of levels - desert wells are deep, essential to survival and filled with a substance more precious than gold. Yet to make sense of the depth of Tinariwen's music, to understand how critical the pull of the desert is to their identity, you have to visit the Sahara. Which is what, after a 1000-kilometre journey through the desert, I'm fortunate enough to do.

It's here I meet Ibrahim, who is propped up between cushions inside our tent. Like many in the group, he lost family in the first rebellion of 1963. He clearly remembers his father being taken away; his weathered face drawn as he recounts his childhood loss. His expression wavers little as, between sips of tea and puffs on a cigarette, the conversation shifts to his discovery of music.

"I used to play the flute but it wasn't enough, so I got a canister, cables from my bike and a wooden pole and called it 'guitar of Ibrahim'. Some kids destroyed it so I made another one. Then when I was 17, I met a guy who taught me to play guitar. I was obsessed with getting an electric guitar and that man bought me one."

We're camped in the mountains near Tessalit, a few hundred kilometres down the road from Kidal, where many members of the group live. This is Mali's Adra des Iforas region, Touareg country where Tinariwen were born and bred. And it is here that they are truly considered heroes.

Which brings us to the reason we're here - the group are overseeing Mali's inaugural Camel Festival. Throughout the three days we're here, men in blue robes arrive on camels - replete with mobiles, Ray-Ban knock-offs and digital cameras. Jeeps of families loaded with mattresses arrive.

People descend on one another's tents to share tea, strum the guitar, chew the (goat) fat. There's no musical program but each night after the camel races, men, women, children and camels gather and howl to the electric guitars of nomadic Touareg groups from as far afield as Algeria.

Tinariwen were the driving force some years ago behind Timbuktu's Festival au Desert. What started off as a show of Mali's rich musical culture - Ali Farka Toure, Oumou Sangare, Habib Koite have all played here - has grown into something of a cult stopover for world music lovers.

But it's also attracted the mainstream of late, from musicians including Robert Plant to the likes of actor Johnny Depp. The festival seems to have outgrown Tinariwen, which is one of the reasons they've decided to go back to basics with a camel festival - a festival run by and for the Touareg.

The festival coincides with the imminent release of the group's third disc - Aman Iman (Water is Life). While no strangers to travel, they will tour Europe, the US, Canada and Australia to promote the album. It will be a chance to try a different kind of nomadism.

So are Tinariwen the next big crossover in world music? It's certainly the most authentic story to hit the music industry since the oldies of the Buena Vista Social Club were delivered to global audiences by World Circuit producer Nick Gold.

"It might be, but it's going to happen slowly because there's still a lot of resistance to non-English-language music, especially among radio producers," says Andy Morgan, Tinariwen's manager.

Word has it that Gold was once interested in signing up Tinariwen. He didn't and apparently he now regrets the decision. Desert blues indeed.

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