Interview: Tinariwen on Playing Guitars Under the Desert Stars

As long as the electric guitar has existed, the desert has inspired its sound. From the instrument's early history in California at the hands of makers like Fender and Rickenbacker, to its featured role in Ennio Morricone's Spaghetti Western soundtracks, guitarists have forever looked to the desert's vast open space as a muse.

More than any band before them, Tinariwen has created music that embodies the desert's sound. By now, their story is well known: Tinariwen is a band of musicians that belong to the Tuareg people, a nomadic stateless nation that spans North Africa, across the Sahara. They formed in 1979, but first received worldwide attention in the early 2000s, following their debut internationally released recording, The Radio Tisdas Sessions.

The band received a Grammy award for Best World Music Album in 2012 for their record Tassili, and a nomination in 2018 for their record Elwan, while continuing to tour the globe and spreading awareness of their culture, as well as self-described "issues of nomadic people who are suffering from every kind of persecution and climate change."

Tinariwen - "Kel Tinawen" (Feat. Cass McCombs)

Their newest release, Amadjar, may be more tied to the desert than any other album in Tinariwen's discography. Back in October 2018, after performing at the Taragalte Festival in Morocco, the band headed to Mauritania, a country south of Morocco on Africa's west coast, to record. The journey took about 12 or so days, and each night, the band would play under the stars, hitting the road again the next day. Upon arriving in Nouakchott, Mauritania, the band met up with their French production team, led by Patrick Votan, who brought a camper van equipped with a makeshift studio control room. The band set up under a tent and recorded in the open space of the desert.

Tinariwen bassist and sometimes guitarist Eyadou Ag Leche explained the concept behind Amadjar via email: "After our last album, Elwan, which was kid of rock/up-tempo oriented, we wanted to go back to our roots. We wanted to play music as we used to do in the beginning, traveling across the Sahara, meeting friends, and doing music around the campfire.

That's why we decided to think of this recording as a road trip from Morocco to Mauritania, where our friends [vocalist] Noura Mint Seymali and her husband [guitarist] Jeiche Ould Chighaly where waiting for us in the bush, close to Nouakchott."

An LP-style James Trussart similar to Ibrahim Ag Alhabib's.

As a result, Amadjar, quite literally, has a natural and organic feel, maybe making this the closest approximation of what Tinariwen sounds like in their natural setting. It's easy to romanticize the sound of hearing Tinariwen performing in the vastness of the desert, but this record lives up to that vision. "Being outside, under the stars in the middle of the sand dunes in the silence is the best way to perform music," explains Ag Leche. "We usually record at the beginning of the evening til midnight—these are beautiful and inspiring moments. The connection with nature is so important in our nomadic lives."

Throughout Tinariwen's catalog, they've frequently made space for collaborations with Western musicians, especially guitarists. On past recordings, they've been joined by artists such as Nels Cline, Kurt Vile, Matt Sweeney, and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. While Amadjar is sonically centered upon Tinariwen in the desert, they still left space for collaboration, and are joined by Warren Ellis (Dirty Three), Stephen O'Malley (Sunn O)))), Micah Nelson (Promise of the Real), and Rodolphe Burger (Kat Onoma), as well as the aforementioned Seymali and guitarist Chighaly.

"We meet a lot of great musicians along our touring," says Ag Leche, "and we love to share our music with others."

When Tinariwen's music does feature guests, it can be somewhat hard to spot, as the result is often just another texture within the sonic fabric of band's sinewy interplay. Tinariwen's music is not about any one featured player, but about the sum of its parts, so much so that even an artist with such an extreme and personal sound as Stephen O'Malley is able to fit in.

The bassist explains, "Our music is really open to experimentation and sound texture. I think our guests are bringing their own sound and personality in respect to our music so the mix sounds natural. Collaborating with other guitarists is always inspiring, especially for the young guitarists of the band."

Tinariwen - "Sastanàqqàm" Live on KCRW

The guitar is such a central part of Tinariwen's music. They've defined their own language on the instrument, creating a sound that holds the electric guitar at its core, with a melodic and rhythmic interplay that weaves in and out of complementary parts, creating a sound that is unique to the band.

"Ibrahim [Ag Alhabib, lead vocalist and guitarist] learned to play guitar with a can and a metal string with a piece of wood," says Ag Leche. "He has developed his own style we call the Ishumar guitar—it is a mix of the way you play on a gimbri or a ngoni but with a touch of blues."

It is that combination of their own traditional playing styles with those of classic rock and blues players that creates the sound that has been commonly referred to as "desert blues" and is a strong part of the Tinariwen aesthetic.

"In the 80s, we discovered Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits, B.B. King, and John Lee Hooker. This music was new to us."

It is those influences that help to give Western listeners an entry point into the band's music.

"Because we play guitars, a lot of rockers love us, I think," says Ag Leche. "In our home, the guitar was the more convenient instrument to play when you want to sing with an instrument. We don't do solos. This is our second voice, so the way we play guitar is a response to our voice."

Gear of Tinariwen

In the time that Tinariwen has been touring internationally, they've not only been able to make friends among Western guitar players, they've also managed to blaze a trail in the West for other Tuareg musicians. Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar released his most recent record, Ilana (The Creator), earlier this year and has been touring heavily throughout the US, while fellow guitarist, Bombino, has received critical praise for his records throughout the Western world, including a Grammy-nomination for his 2018 album, Deran.

While the reception for Tinariwen has been warm in the US, this summer the band was met with racist threats posted in response to a Facebook ad for an upcoming performance in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This incident makes the title of Amadjar, which translates into English as "unknown visitor," all the more prescient. The band released an official statement explaining that Tinariwen "has delivered a message of peace and freedom for their people from the Sahara" and that they are "very sad that a minority of people can think that Tinariwen is supporting extremist religious movement. It means that we have to work harder and continue our fight against ignorance."

Tinariwen's latest, Amadjar, was released on September 6. The band is currently on tour in the US. Visit their website here for tour dates.

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