Tinariwen

As the Saharan rebel-rockers prepare to play Štvanice island, June 3rd, as part of the Respect Festival, PTV talks to their manager

Perhaps in the music of The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, or Patti Smith you've heard a few nods to the Sahara and have liked what you heard. Tinariwen are Tuareg nomads whose electric guitars, percussion and voices deliver the full spectrum of what the Western Sahara and hard rock can dish out.

Since 2003 Tinariwen has been taking their crucial sound to European and American stages. The group's last Prague concert, at Palác Akropolis drew an enthusiastic packed house, and their Saturday night sure to be one of the star attractions at this year's Respect Festival

Ahead of that appearance - and amid reports of renewed fighting in the band's homeland, Mali - Tinariwen manager Andy Morgan took a few moments to compare notes with Prague TV from his office in Bristol, England.

Darrell Jónsson: What's unique about Tinariwen's approach to the genre that's often called "Desert Blues"?

Andy Morgan: Since the beginning, around 1980, Tinariwen have always been a guitar band, with the electric guitar predominating, even though the acoustic guitar has always been very important, and is coming back into the music more and more. This unashamedly modern electric approach is pretty unique. The other great desert bluesmen - Ali Farka, Afel, Kar Kar, etc. - all base their music around acoustic vibes. Tinariwen are electric and proud of it. Their connections with the Tamashek struggle also gives their music a unique edge.

DJ: How popular is the music of Tinariwen in Mali and the Sahara?

AM: Very popular, but only really amongst the Tamashek-speaking people. Kids and adults can recite Tinairwen's songs verbatim in places like Tamanrasset, in Gall, Agadez, Djanet and even in Libya.

DJ: Does Tuareg identity cross over or dovetail in anyway with Berber identity, and do Berbers and Tuareg share music and similar attitudes towards their cultures?

AM: Berber intellectuals have made a huge amount of mileage out of the Tuareg connection, citing them as the standard-bearers of the purest form of surviving Berber culture, and the guardians of Tifinar, the alphabet, which has been mutated by Berber linguists into a modern pan-Berber alphabet called Tamazight. The Tuareg themselves are also proud of their Berber ancestry, but it's really only the intellectuals who are aware of this connection. The man in the street is likely to have a more immediate horizon, on which Tamashek culture itself predominates.

DJ: How is Tinariwen's music evolving?

AM: The group is getting tighter, the individuals are playing better, and so the music is less chaotic, more focused. But the essential ingredients remain the same - guitars, voice, handclaps, chorus, bass, djembe. There are plans to incorporate other traditional instruments and songs in future recordings, but these are only plans at the moment.

DJ: What can Prague audiences expect compared to Tinariwen's previous performances here?

AM: On this tour, the group comprises seven men. Mina Walet Oumar left the band at the end of the last tour to pursue her own projects.

DJ: Has the feedback from international audiences in anyway shaped how the
sound of Tinariwen has developed?

AM: Not really. Exposure to other styles of music, and a general professionalism on the Western music circuit, has given Tinariwen certain goals they feel that they themselves must achieve, to do with stagecraft and competence. But the music remains rooted in the desert, and its character is still the same.

DJ: Does the band have any upcoming CD projects?

AM: Yes, the band have just recorded a new album, produced by Justin Adams, who produced The Radio Tisdas Sessions, and who is currently Robert Plant's guitarist. It was recorded in February at Bogolan studios in Bamako, Mali, and will be released next January.

DJ: I was told that on May 23rd, in Tinariwen's hometown of Kidal, there was a battle between Tuareg rebels and the Malian army. Do these events impact the future of Tinariwen?

AM: At this stage it's hard to say. The impact could be light, if both sides get down to negotiating very soon, and tension eases. However, if, as some fear, this will turn into a bit on both sides to "finish" the rebellion of 1990-1, then the consequences could be very serious, for the whole region, and its people. It's going to make it hard for Tinariwen to have any kind of relationship with the Malian government, or with other parts of Mali. Already there's talk of avoiding Bamako as a travel gate in and out of the country, and using other routes through Algeria instead.

There might be consequences for traveling, visas, getting together for rehearsals, taking journalists out to the desert to cover Tinariwen activities, etc. Most worryingly, the future of all the various desert festivals which have been springing up is now seriously in doubt, at least inasmuch as they attract foreign tourists. But all of these band issues pale into insignificance when compared to the potentially catastrophic consequences for the local population, including the friends and families of Tinariwen.

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