Straight outta Timbuktu, Tuareg band Tinariwen are unlike anything else on earth. Tim Hughes asks bassist Eyadou Ag Leche what it’s all about
Draped in robes and turbans, and rocking out mournful desert blues on electric guitars and traditional African instruments, there isn’t another band on earth quite like Tinariwen.
Their name means “people of the desert” and they look like they have just stepped out of a Saharan sandstorm.
Tinariwen are Tuareg, members of that proud nomadic tribe who inhabit the shifting sands beyond Timbuktu – a byword for mystery and adventure – and their music is a haunting, evocative blend of African, Arab, European and American.
Sung in their native Tamashe tongue, it has elements of Algerian rai, North African chaabi, Berber tunes, Malian folk and blues-rock, inspired by the sounds of Led Zeppelin and Carlos Santana.
“We call our style Assouf, meaning nostalgia or, even better, melancholy,” answers bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, elegantly in French.
“We also like to see our music as pop, in the sense that we want it to be popular, for all that it conveys, and to be useful, in our eyes, for humanity,” he adds.
It’s a grand vision, though one which resonates with fans. They have won armfuls of accolades; their 2011 album Tassili picking up a Grammy and a BBC World Music Award.
“Our music comes directly from our ancestral tradition with the discovery of the guitar 40 years ago,” says Eyadou.
And why do people love it? “It’s because it is authentic, simple and spontaneous,” he says. “But also because of the feeling, which evokes a certain truth that we defend ideologically, through poetry which is sometimes very old.”
Those poetic lyrics are propelled by virtuoso electric guitars and traditional desert instruments like the shepherd’s flute, one-string imzad fiddle, lute and Mandingo-style calabash gourd percussion.
Eyadou acknowledges the crossover between his own brand of west African music and American blues. “It is the result of chance,” he says. “It is because of the history of population movements and the different situations encountered – sometimes with many similarities.”
And the lyrics? “They are about love for life in our desert,” he says.
“It’s about all the richness of our ancestral culture, as well as the awakening of consciousness with the situation of our present world.”
The band was founded by band elder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib in 1979. Inspired to play the guitar after watching a Western film, he used what was to hand: a tin can, stick and length of bicycle brake wire.
The band evolved in exile in southern Algeria and in refugee camps in Libya, where the Tuareg were embraced by the then leader Muammar Gaddafi – who had visions of creating his own Tuareg desert army.
When conflict broke out in Mali, they swapped their instruments for guns, headed over the border and joined the fight for Tuareg independence.
Fighting over, they returned to music – bootleg recordings of their soulful tunes being traded across the Sahara, and earning them a strong regional following. When they were discovered by Western musicians performing at a festival in Mali, their reputation spread, their music striking a chord with world music around the world.
In keeping with their nomadic roots, the band seem constantly on the move. How does Eyadou feel to be on the road again? “We are very happy to be enjoying this success,” he says. “And it seems to always be getting stronger.
“However, we strive to find the best rhythm of everyday life so as not to be tired physically and morally.”
He goes on: “We are now very experienced in most countries, so we always look for the best way to operate. A bus with bunks is by far the most convenient and allows us to do our cooking as we could do at home.
“This nomadic life of modern times suits us better and better thanks to the good use of financial means which we have obtained little by little.
“Our concerts are often a great success,” he goes on.
“We are humble and live simply, and our progress is slow but strong over time. The sincerity of our music as well as our lifestyle are our strength.”
When touring is over, they head back to their families in the Azawad region of northern Mali.
“When we are away, we miss life in the desert, close to our families,” he says.
The band’s tribal homeland has recently been in the press for the wrong reason.
An armed insurrection in northern Mali, initially backed by the Tuareg in a drive for independence, descended into a battle between the Tuareg’s National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and hardline Islamist groups, including the Al Qaeda-backed Ansar Dine.
In their pursuit of what they considered Islamic ideals, they outlawed popular music and specifically targeted Tinariwen.
While most members of the band evaded capture, guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamid was abducted and held for weeks after going back to save his instruments.
Despite the deployment of the French and some African national armies, the situation in northern Mali remains volatile. Against that backdrop, the band recorded their sixth album Emmaar, in exile in America.
“Of course, this kind of situation is always dramatic,” says Eyadou.
“Our global society is going wrong.
"This is surely the result of a disregard for each other’s values. There is too much inequality. The problem is this eternal race for money. All the pretexts are good but We must not forget our essential values.”
On April 28 Tinariwen return to Oxford to play the O2 Academy Oxford. So, I ask, who can we expect to see on stage in Oxford? “Toujours le meme,” he says. “It’s always the same team.”
Though, he says, they do still miss two departed members – founder member Inteyeden Ag Ablil, who died of a virus in 1994, and singer Wonou Walet Oumar, who died of a kidney infection in 2005.
“We miss them very much,” he says.
“But we have learned from what happened that it is important to continue as long as we are able, and for as long as what we do is still useful. For happiness to exist, there must be misfortune too.”
So what is the best thing to have happened to the band in their long journey?
“That would be the great success that has come to us,” he says. He adds: “As for us, we we are striving to remain at the service of the people.
“We want to awaken our consciences together in order to choose how to build the world of tomorrow.”
Tinawiran play the O2 Academy Oxford on April 28. Tickets from ticketweb.co.uk