Tinariwen have paid their dues. Formed in 1982 by a group of Mali musicians seeking respite from the brutal regime of the government, they used home-made guitars to fuse African and Western influences, and forged a reputation that was too big even for the Sahara desert to contain. By the time of 2007’s Aman Iman album, Tinariwen was on the lips of legends from Robert Plant to Chris Martin, on stages from Glastonbury to Coachella, and in the record collections of people who previously thought ‘world music’ was a dirty word. With Vox-powered fourth album Imidiwan: Companions storming the charts, singer/guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib looks back at the long, hard road behind him.
VOX: How hard was it to get to this point?
Ibrahim Ag Alhabib: “It’s been very tough. I lost my father in the first rebellion in the early-’60s, then lived in exile until my twenties. The journey has been the same for thousands of other young Touaregs [the nomadic people of Western Africa] of my generation. Sometimes the suffering was intense; you can feel it in our music. But it wasn’t totally bleak. We drew strength from each other, and faced the challenges together. That’s one meaning of the new album title. I wanted to dedicate it to my companions, who have shared this long, hard road with me.”
VOX: How important is music in Touareg culture?
IAA: “Music is everything. From the day you are born to the day you die, music accompanies you everywhere. But Tinariwen doesn’t play traditional music. Before us, the guitar didn’t exist in Touareg music. We introduced the instrument because it was easy to carry across the desert. It’s also an instrument that is known all over the world, so by using it we were opening out to the rest of the world. In fact, all the traditional instruments, like the tindé, the imzad and the teherdent, have some kind of restriction on them; either they can only be played by women, or by traditional griots [‘bards’]. The guitar was a free instrument, because it was so new.”
VOX: Which Western artists inspired Tinariwen?
IAA: “Each of us has their favourites. In the early days, I’d listen to Elvis Presley, Dire Straits, Santana, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan. We also love acoustic music, and country and western artists.”
VOX: Did you ever think you’d be this successful outside Africa?
IAA: “We always dreamed about it. We’d look at maps and wonder what it would be like to be standing in New York, or Japan, or the plains of Canada. So it’s remarkable that these dreams have come true. In the early days, we never thought our music might have any meaning for people outside the desert. Our audience were the Kel Tamashek, our own people. Since 2001 we’ve been conveying the same messages of awareness, of love of the desert, to the rest of the world.”
VOX: How does it feel to know that the world’s biggest artists are now your fans?
IAA: “It feels good to have the respect of some great musicians; like a justification of all our efforts and sufferings. I’m especially pleased that we’ve met and worked with Robert Plant and Santana, who are two artists I admire a lot.”
VOX: What are the challenges of recording in the Sahara?
IAA: “For me, it’s concentration. The desert has many distractions. My family are there and they often need help to carry and fetch people or animals. I also love to spend time in the bush, on my own, under the stars, and it’s hard for me to be around people for too long. But then, the desert is where I feel free. It’s where my inspiration comes. So that’s a bigger advantage, I think.”
VOX: Is it true that you made your first guitar?
IAA: “Yes, when I was very young, maybe four or five years old. It was made with a plastic water container, a stick, some rope and bicycle brakewire. It was pretty much the same as the guitar the kid is playing on the cover of the new album.”
VOX: How hard is it to find good amps in the desert?
IAA: “You can’t find any amps in the desert! You have to bring them from Europe. There are no music shops within fifteen hundred kilometres of my home.”
VOX: Have you always been fans of Vox?
IAA: “I do like Vox. They’re solid and have a very honest rock sound, which is what I’m after for my music. It’s important for our music not to sound too sweet, and the Vox helps with that. The rhythm guitars were fed through a Vox [AC30] on Imidiwan to get that grungy, churning sound.”
VOX: What made you choose the AC30 and DA5?
IAA: “It was Justin Adams, who produced Aman Iman. He brought an AC30 to the sessions in Bamako. The DA5 is a good desert amp. It’s tough and it runs on batteries so we don’t have problems when there is no electricity supply. We also used a Vox wah pedal on Aman Iman – you can hear it on the song Assouf.”
VOX: Finally, do you feel like rock stars?
IAA: “No. We don’t really know about rock stars in the desert. We’re treated just the same as we ever were. Nobody bothers us. We’re just one of the people.”
Interview by Henry Yates - Photos by Jean-Paul Romann
The Tour Bus
The Sahara dust settles on the Vox DA5