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Tinariwen interview: Soul rebels of the North African desert

Hailing from the Touareg people, Tinariwen play the ‘music of the unemployed’. They spoke to Kevin Devine about their Aman Iman album

Issue No. 2039

Tinariwen (Pic: Eric Mullet)

Tinariwen (Pic: Eric Mullet)


You have dedicated Aman Iman to “Peace, tolerance and development in the Sahara and the world of the oppressed.” These are powerful sentiments and I can guess where they’ve come from, but why did you choose this particular dedication?

I think it’s important for us to make it clear that the Tinariwen story isn’t just some exotic epic that happened in some obscure corner of the Sahara desert, and that is without any relevance to the wider world.

What happened to us has happened to millions of people around the world, and is still happening.

Our songs are about the Touareg, and our home in the desert. But we’d also like to think that anyone who’s in exile, who’s fighting for independence, for the survival of their people, their culture and their language, can relate to the songs too.

But having said that, we also believe in peace, tolerance and development. The rebellion we fought in the early 1990s was very painful and very brutal, especially in its effect on the civilian population.

War of any kind must always be engaged as a last resort, in self-defence. In those circumstances, no doubt the members of Tinariwen would fight again but in the meantime we place our faith and our hope in peace, tolerance and developement.

Where does your music come from? What are your main influences – as well as Touareg traditions, what are your other musical inspirations?

The Tinariwen sound is really the fruit of a union between traditional Touareg music, which was played on instruments like the teherdent lute, the tindé drum and the one-string imzad fiddle, and the modern electric or acoustic guitar.

That’s the essential basis. Beyond that there are certainly influences such as modern Moroccan chaabi – Nass El Ghiwane and Lemchaheb.

Other influences include Algerian chaabi and rai, Berber music especially modern Kabyle protest music such as Ait Meguellet, Ferhat and Matoub Lounes, the music of the Western Sahara and the Polisario, classic Egyptian pop, such as Oum Kalsoum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab, and Sudanese music.

There are the black African influences such as Ali Farka Touré. And lastly there are the Western rock influences including Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Santana and plenty of country and western. There’s a lot in there.

You’ve toured in Europe and found a certain amount of commercial success. Has this had an impact on you, and if so, in what ways?

I think the main impact can be measured in terms of confidence, and status back home. Tinariwen have always been held in ambivalent regard by our peers in the north of Mali.

People respected us as poets, as “truthsayers”. But after the rebellion, when we decided to try and make a living as musicians, we were considered almost as “artisans” by the Touareg creme de la creme.

I think the fact that we’re now touring the globe, that we’ve been seen on stage with people like Santana or Robert Plant – artists held in high esteem in the southern Sahara – has increased the respect in which the members of Tinariwen are held.

The fact that we earn a regular income from touring, and increasingly from royalties, also has given us some financial stability.

But beyond that, Tinariwen remain essentially the same people. What’s for certain is that none of us are likely to move to Paris, London or Los Angeles and live the rock star life.

We’re far too tied to our desert home for that. This is a defence against the delusions of stardom and fame.


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Reviews
Sat 24 Feb 2007, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2039
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