TASSILI is the new born record from the womb of the desert. It comes from the sandy soil, the relaxed routines and the calm and easy everyday life. TASSILI chases the origins of the Nomad tribes, worldwide known as Tuareg people. Its embryonic stage has experienced the fusion within different genres and the meeting within people all around the world. This is a record full of life, as the musician behind it.
Grammy awarded for “Best World Music Album”, Tinariwen warmly welcome us in their London hotel just some hours before their live show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. They tell us about their music, about where they come from and how does the Nomad spirit feel like, through the words of the youngest component of the band, the bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, while we try to recall to our mind the sound of silence of the valley of the desert.
DROME: Present yourselves! Who are you and where are you from?
Eyadou Ag Leche: We are a band of musicians from the desert of Tuareg, North of Mali.
D: How many are you? Sometimes you look more like an extended family rather than a band...
EAL: Usually in between 5 and 7. It’s rare that we play with less than 5 musicians or more than 7!
D: How did you approach music first?
EAL: Our leader Ibrahim is the founder of the band. He invented the style and the music genre we are playing, although, Tuareg music has been existing for a long time. Around 1978-79 up to 1982, when Tinarwen started to play music on a regular basis, Ibrahim introduced modern instruments like the electric and the acoustic guitar, managing to lead a better quality of sound and a different acoustic. After 1982, our music started being played all around Africa, in weddings, in baptisms, until 2000, when we got the chance to do our first tour in Europe.
D: How did Tinariwen formed?
EAL: After 1963, a huge drought hit Mali, and the situation worsened when the Malian governments decided to start taxing the Tuareg people. Political and social disputes blow up. Nomads felt threatened by the state and the land in drought, so decided to move, driving young generation especially, outside the country to find refuge somewhere else. I was born in one of these journey: my parents were part of that great exodus out of Mali towards the exile. I was born in Algeria, where my parents stop off. Then the exodus continued, as the youngs left for Libya. This was the generation of Ibrahim – and of my father – seeking for money and ways to go back and free our land. At their arrival in Lybi,a they found protection by Gheddafi who promised to support their rebellion, offering refuge in military camp and rebel training centres. Tinariwen met here, and it’s here that they start playing music together. After a while, they start sending tapes to Mali secretly, as listening to music was forbidden. Therefore, Tinariwen were brought closer and united by the exile, they named the band in Lybia in the military camp.
D: What does music represent for you? And what is the message in your songs?
EAL: For the Tuareg community, music and poetry are everything. Music is politics. Music is “maux de vie”, it’s the news and the current affair. I think we play music to give out information, to project our ideas and convey feelings. Music is felt as something that embraces every aspect of our life: what we talk about in our songs, is about what we feel, it’s about love but also about the news, what’s going on about the Tuareg life. Tinariwen’s message is 70-90% for the Tuareg cause. It’s always political and social. We sing about the integration with Mali, the 1991 rebellion, and we sing about the wish for freedom and independence of our people.
D: Do you “fit” yourself in the contemporary music scene?
EAL: We now realise how big is our audience and how many fan we have. However, we have had very few information about the world up until recently. We don’t really know where we could be insert within the contemporary music scene, but I can tell you, that we are enjoying the very good results achieved in the last few years. For Example, we won a Grammy two or three months ago, and I think this is a sing that people really appreciate our music.
D: Is there anyone in particular who has recently inspired you, musically?
EAL: Today we listen to lot of music, a great variety of genres. It’s more like a discovery, because at home we don’t have the chance to listen to music. So for a long time we didn’t know what music like Blues, Rock or Pop sounded like. We’ve approached Jazz only in 2002! Where we lived there were no radio channels, no television, so for us it’s a real surprise to actually find out what is happening in the music scene today! Since 2002, the year we started touring outside our country, we have met many musicians which we felt being really similar to us, so that’s why we decided to collaborate and create something with them. For example, we have played with Santana, TV on the Radio and Red Hot Chili Peppers… and now we realise how close we are to these bands, in terms of playing and making music.
D: Do you think your music has changed after the collaborations and encounter of other artists and genres?
EAL: I don’t think so. We haven’t changed, because the music is about our ancestors and our current lifestyle. It’s about one cause. And the power of our music is that it doesn’t only come from Tinariwen, but also from our ancestors which, in a way, are still here; we are still surrounded by camel dances, religious chants, and our cultural inheritance still forms the Universe we live in, everyday. Why should we change?!
D: What can you tell us about the relationship between music and war?
EAL: The weapons symbolise the period of our life during 1990s. But now, the only weapon we use is the music one, as we think music can be the most effective and powerful enterprise, and also the most sensible. Fortunately, our audience is getting bigger and bigger, and we have now the chance to speak up and to be heard by a greater number of people. In 1990s those who where once the young generations (the one of Ibrahim, Abdallah, Hassan and my father as well) returned from the exile to Mali, and from that time to nowadays, it has been 20 years now of slow negotiations, civil rebellions and attempts to come to agreements, supposedly encouraging development and independence. Nothing has really changed: the civil war now on in Mali demonstrates it, clearly.
D: It seems that within your last album “you’ve abandon your weapons”. What do you think about TASSILI? It has also been described as your more authentic one and probably the return to the “essence of your art”: do you agree?
EAL: Yes, I can say our last album it’s the return to the basics, to our roots. After quite a few records, we decided to compose and record TASSILI completely in the desert, in a complete chilled out and “tranquille” way! It was great, exactly how we expected it to be. The desert keeps our wealth and our resources: there is no other place able to inspire us more. It’s our home, it’s what with “handle” the best. Also, during recording sessions, we were completely disembedded from time schedules. and since we didn’t carry any watches we were free to play and record calmly and without pressure whatsoever.
D: How do you think your background, the landscape and your time and space setting influenced the developing of your persona and your music?
EAL: Big spaces give you the chance to listen to the sound of silence, especially at night. And although we all know what to expect from this beautiful landscape, we are always mesmerised by what we look at. Looking at the desert with your eyes makes you travel with your mind.
D: So, do you miss the desert?
EAL: We travel a lot but our mind is always back to the desert. Yes, we miss it, and we are lucky to be living in such a place: there is no time and space restrictions, life is really simple and easy and you can take as much time as you want. The desert helps a lot our musical carrier and performance as well: it creates so many different echoes and sounds, and mostly important, it can create the silence… Silence is the thing I like the most when I am going back: it does make me feel it’s a real holiday!
text and live-photos by Giulia Frigieri
French Translation by Esther Bensadon