Thursday night, the group from northern Mali delivered a beautiful performance in Washington D.C. The opening band — an amateur, quirky singer/songwriter American duo from New York City — did little to set the musical mood for the Tuareg headliners.
When the heavy, velvet curtains finally did open, it revealed a row of musicians holding guitars. They were draped from head to toe in brilliant bazin [a hand-dyed and pounded fabric which is used to make the traditional tunics (or boubous) worn in West Africa.] White smoke was billowing up from the stage floor at their feet. The audience collectively quieted and gazed ahead as the guitars began to sing, and the calabasse drum kicked in with a gentle gait of clicks and thuds. Stage lights in bold magenta and yellow swirled the stage and audience alike as they began to sing. Aside from a small group of local Tuaregs in the crowd, most of whom had positioned themselves right up at the front edge of the open floor, pressed up against the stage, the rest of us had to idea what they were singing about because it was all in Tamashek. One thing we all understood, though, was that the musical mood was now definitely set; majestic, warm, genuine, hypnotic, bluesy…these adjectives come to mind. I brought along my camera and filmed a segment of the show for you.
To the right is Ayedou Ag Leche, the bassist and spokesperson for the group. Below is the interview, translated in English (conducted in French).
Heather (H): We were surprised to see that Ibrahim isn’t with you. Why didn’t he come this time?
Actually he hasn’t been with us for the last two tours because of the problems in Mali. When the time came for us to leave for the tours, it was impossible for Ibrahim to leave because he lives in a zone where the army is and all that so he didn’t want to risk it, so he stayed with his family. But he’s doing very well.
H: How has life changed since you won the Grammy in February?
To tell you the truth, winning the Grammy was an enormous thing for us. In fact it is a victory for all Tuaregs. It’s a gift for the whole population. Now, if you look at the list of World artists who won the Grammy, you find Tinariwen – Tuaregs. So, we’re very happy, but our life has changed because of the events in Mali. That’s the change – not the Grammys.
H: Have the crowds been larger since February?
We have a lot of people now. In the US, in California – and in each concert we see more and more people so that encourages us to keep going.
H: Clearly you’ve been following the developments in Mali. Have they inspired any new songs or musical ideas?
Of course we follow very closely the situation in Mali because it concerns us 100%. So we are in the process of composing songs that talk about certain things; what we hope for the future of life in general for the two countries; for the two peoples today because there are some very sensitive points that we have to face honestly. We are working on finding a way to deliver a message that can help find a definitive solution to the problem.
H: What are your plans once the tour is over? Will you go back in the studio? Will it be in Mali, or France, or somewhere else?
After our tour here, well, we are all committed to humanitarianism either in Azawad or in the whole world. Our project is to play in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso to help the Malian and Azawadean refugees. We are also going to Mauritania to play for our refugees, and also in Niamey. They are completely forgotten. No one helps them. Tinariwen – we are not stars, we’re just a little group who make our living the best we can, so we can’t finance and protect and pay for medicine for all of the refugees. We want them to know that we are with them.
H: In the song Tenere Taqhim Tossam, “Jealous Desert,” you sing that the desert is jealous…and you mention it again in the song Imidiwan Ma Tanam “What Have You Got to Say My Friends?” Why or in what sense is the desert jealous?
Actually that poetic idea came to me on the spot when we were recording. I went outside and climbed up a rock and looked around. Then I thought about all of the other countries that I have seen and I realized that the desert is truly, very jealous. If you look at a map, you can see that the water is very far away, vegetation is very far away, there is no potable water here, no hospitals, no schools. So the desert is like a mother. The people are her children. The mother wants to have all of these things for her children, water, school…like every other country has, but it’s never enough. It’s the earth itself that is jealous because it always wants more.
H: With the song, Imidiwan Win Sahara, “My Friends from the Sahara” I was curious about something. In this song you sing:
“My friends from the Sahara, our feedom is gone.
Let’s unite , or else we shall all vanish
Not a single soul will be left alive in the desert.”
So my question is, what is the threat?
The threat has several sides actually. Climatically we are threatened. There is a shortage of water, jobs, development and everything. Next, our country is becoming a playing card for other countries who want to install terrorists and whatever else, so that’s another threat.
H: In Takest Tamidaret, “Scorching Afternoon,” you tell a story of a young boy who stole your saddle. First of all, is that a horse or a camel saddle?
It is certainly a camel saddle (laughing).
H: You are tracking him down with a brand new sword, all sharpened, and a brand new rifle, all greased, loaded with a couple of bullets that bear bad news. Your skin burns like an incandescent log. If you find this child, do you plan to kill him?
Never! It’s just that when you love something so much, sometimes you imagine what would happen if you lose it.
H: Was this a true story?
Yes. It was a true story. We sing about what we live. Even before Tinariwen, our ancestors were people who fought wars, traveled in tribes, and herded cattle just like people all over the world, but now we fight wars through poetry. We also send our loved one messages through poetry. Even before 1963, poetry about our revolution exists. Since even before France, we have always wanted our independence.
Here is Tinariwen after about the 3rd song into the concert:
Tinariwen took off for New York right after the concert. Bon voyage.