The desert, though serene, can be a hard place to live in. But for a motley crew of nomadic musicians from arid lands in the Sahara desert, it has given them a metaphor for global success, recognition and “having their voices heard”. Winning the 2011 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album for their fifth studio album, Tassili is not their only claim to fame. For over three decades, Tinariwen (meaning deserts), a group of former rebel fighters and tribals belonging to the Tuareg community of northern Mali have been impressing the world by blending a variety of sounds.
Their lyrics, which range from subjects such as politics, beauty of nature, values of culture and a sense of longing for their homeland, are meant to evoke interest about the intermittent conflict plaguing this small region in Western Africa for more than two decades. The underlying theme is simple — to let people take control of their future. “The first idea behind forming Tinariwen was to spread our music and lyrics across the world. It has worked so far and that’s the reason why we are performing in India.
Each day is like evolution for us and we are always looking for new places to perform,” says Eyadou Ag Leche, the bassist and vocalist for the band. Sitting at the poolside of the Clarks Amer — the venue for the Music Nights as part of the seventh Jaipur Literary Festival — Leche is dressed in a long coat and jeans, quite unlike the veiled headdress and long colourful robes the band members sport for their performances. The band’s performance concluded the festival on Monday evening.
The band emerged out of a sense of expressing their voice to escape the strife in their homeland in the early ’80s. The founder member of the band, Ibrahim Al Habib (who still plays for them), saw his father gunned down at the age of four and since then has been a champion for the cause of his people. Inspired by Western cowboy classics, he donned a hat and made his own guitar using a stick and bicycle strings in an effort to reach out to the world.
The eight-member band has seen many people leave and join their crew, and Ag Leche is one of the newer additions. “We are like one big family. It isn’t just a band. Tinariwen is like a concept to represent our culture. Every Tuareg person can be a part of the band. They are welcome to sing and dance to our music,” says Leche, who joined the band in 2002 on their European tour. The other younger members include Said Ag Ayad on percussion and Elaga Ag Hamid on guitar.
In their early days, the band members were living in Libyan refugee camps where the Tuaregs were shifted during the early ’80s to escape persecution by the Mali government. But restlessness soon made its way into their lives and they joined the armed struggle against the government at the behest of Libyan leader Gaddafi. The promise was an independent Tuareg State, which still remains a distant dream. “We put down arms 30 years ago. We are playing music as it is the peaceful way,” adds Leche. The band has collaborated with Red Hot Chilli Peppers and also recently with musician Kiran Ahluwalia on her own version of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s classic number, Musst Musst.
Their music, which roughly comes under the genre of World Music, can be best described as part folkloric, laced with inspirations from American-blues, soul and alternative rock. “The founding members of the band would hear a lot of music by Jimi Hendrix, Dire Straits, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan, which they mixed with traditional tunes composed in the refugee camps,” says Leche.
Their latest album, Emmar, which was recorded in Joshua Tree, California, is probably their most American sounding album. “We look for inspiration depending on the place we are in and what we feel at the time. There is no one sound of Tinariwen. The principle sentiment we are singing about is nostalgia. We are not looking to be American in our music but we think we are playing a lot of rock in our repertoire,” he adds.