Serenading the desert

Algerian band Tinariwen is excited about its debut India performance at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014 tomorrow, where they perform with Indo-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia

The term Tinariwen means deserts. Tenere is one desert and Tinariwen are many deserts. No, this isn’t a lesson in geography, but just to give you a glimpse into the origin of the cult nomadic Algerian band Tinariwen’s name. Formed in the deserts of Tamanrasset, Algeria and later Mali, the band is renowned as Africa’s most popular and acclaimed world music export. In the 1980s, the young founders, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Touhami Ag Alhassane and Intiyeden were in exile, due to the political situation in their land. “Since he was a child, Ibrahim was looking for a guitar — he played a traditional flute and ‘tehardent’, a trad guitar with three strings, and built his handmade guitar until he found his true first guitar in 1978. They met Abdallah Ag Allousseyni (one of the current band members) in Libya where they spent few months in a military training camp,” the band says, in an email interview. The band’s fifth album Tassili, that released in 2011, won the Award for Best World Music Album at the 54th Grammy Awards.

Tinariwen will release their sixth album Emmar in February this year

When it comes to members, the band has seen a lot of changes and the current line-up comprises Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, Touhami Ag Alhassane, Eyadou Ag Leche, Said Ag Ayad and Elaga Ag Hamid. Tinariwen will be doing the closing act at the Jaipur Literaure Festival 2014 on January 20, alongwith Indo-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia, whose jugalbandi with Tinariwen, Mustt Mustt, won last year’s Songlines’ Newcomer of the Year award and the World Music Album of the Year.

For those of us unfamiliar with the band and its music, how would you describe your sound and what are your influences? What are the subjects the songs deal with?
Tinariwen’s music is an evolution of the traditional Tuareg music and poetry. When we found our first guitars, we started to play without any instruction; we began to play instinctively with traditional tunes and to sing poetry. The lyrics always speak about the nostalgia of our land and culture, the life in the desert. As all the population was embroiled in the geo-political situation, in exile, Tinariwen found a bigger audience with all young people who were looking for their identity.

What do you think was the turning point for the band, musically?
Definitely when the band began touring Europe, 14 years ago, we found the possibility to think more professionally about our music. Our intention is always to let the music have a spontaneous evolution, to respect the authentic style. So the last big turning point was to decide to become professional in 2000, so as to devote all our time thinking about music.

Your last album Tassili fetched you a Grammy Award. Did winning the Grammys make a huge difference to the way the band is perceived now?
It is an open door to a bigger audience. Also, we were proud for all our people,
our culture.

You have played at concerts and festivals all over the world, and at some of the best venues. What does it mean for you to play in India, especially at the Jaipur Literature Festival?
Since we are travelling everywhere in the world, we have been speaking for a long time about coming to visit India and your Desert. All cultural evolution adapted to the similar environment, so from desert to desert! Few years ago we met Jaipur Kawa Brass Band in Europe. The meeting was wonderful.

How did your collaboration with Kiran Ahluwalia take place? Are you looking forward to performing with her live again?
Of course, we are very happy to meet Kiran one more time and more excited to play in India — simply the opportunity to discover our respective music and to have the pleasure of exchanging our music styles and finally to play together again.

The band has been active since 1979 and gone though a number of changes, musically as well as in terms of band members. How have these changes impacted the band and its sound?
Our intention together is of inter-generation transmission, to achieve the continuation of the legendary story of Tinariwen. As all the Touareg population are behind the band and support it, there is a lot of hope for our culture and geo-economic-political situation riding on us.

What are the projects, collaborations and live shows in the pipeline for the band?
We are just starting a tour for our new album, Emmar, which was recorded in the Californian desert and will be released worldwide at the beginning of February…and maybe the next album will be recorded in Jaisalmer?!

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