Malian desert blues band Tinariwen.


Photo: Marie Planeille.

Interview: Decades Later, Tinariwen Is Still Speaking Out and Rocking

We talk to the Tuareg music collective about their pioneering influence on the desert blues and their new album, Amatssou.

There is an interesting backstory to the recording of Amatssou, the ninth studio album by the veteran Tuareg music collective Tinariwen.

Conceived as an exploration of the shared connections between the guitar heavy, socially conscious 'assouf' style of music (internationally known as desert blues) which the band pioneered and the twang of American country music, the plan was to record in Nashville, Tennessee on the invitation of superstar American rocker Jack White.

That plan was thwarted by the pandemic’s travel restrictions and the revolving collective—now fronted by founding members Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Touhami Ag Alhassane and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni as well as bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, percussionist SaidAg Ayad and guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid — headed towards Djanet, an oasis in the desert of southern Algeria.

Amatssou represents an artistic evolution for the Grammy-winning band formed back in 1979. But the record also maintains their trademark activism as seen in lyrics that address Mali’s ongoing political turmoil.

OkayAfrica had a chat with acoustic guitarist and vocalist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni about bringing the new record to life and Tinariwen’s pioneering influence on the desert blues.

Your last album Amadjar came out in 2019, how do you decide as a collective that it is time for a new record and what was the process of putting Amatssou together?

We try to record whenever possible but the whole process of releasing an album takes a lot of time and energy. All of us had songs in mind for Amatssou, including songs we’ve been playing live for years and that had never been properly recorded, like "Kek Alghalm." We were supposed to record in the summer of 2021 in Nashville, but we had to cancel because of Covid and travel bans. In the end it happened in Algeria, near Djanet in March 2022.

Amatssou is coming into a completely different world than Amadjar. In what ways has the band changed—or stayed the same?

We're completely stay the same. We have lots of issues in our own country in the north of Mali since many years ago, we know that nobody is buying CDs anymore. It has been almost 20 years that we have been touring worldwide and releasing albums. Playing in front of an audience is what makes us realize that our music is touching people. We still need to make people know about our culture, our language, our writing. This is the most important goal for us. As long as we will be able to play live, we will do what we do and hope that the young Tuareg generation will follow our tracks.

Malian desert blues band Tinariwen.TInariwen.Photo: Marie Planeille.

What is the dynamic like within the band. How does the creative process work for you guys?

We all live in different areas now. Some of us are in Tessalit, Kidal in northern Mali, others are close to the Algerian border. Ibrahim lives in the bush with no phone connection at all. Each composer (Ibrahim, Hassan, Eyadou and myself) writes his own songs alone with a guitar and when we meet for touring or recording we spend time playing these news songs live or during soundcheck or album pre-production. We record lots of songs live, between 20 to 25 songs and at the end we decide the ones we think are ready to be on an album or keep for later.

What is the overriding theme of Amatssou and what are you hoping to communicate with the record?

Amatssou means beyond the fear. It is difficult to translate this word because it means the fear but also the courage to face the issues of our people. Since a couple of years ago the political situation of the Sahel changed a lot. Extremists are fighting against themselves and against the Malian junta. Russian mercenaries are in our zone, the area between Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso is now very dangerous, people from the villages are killed. So, we don’t even have the choice of moving forward when we are afraid of these problems. That’s what Amatssou is talking about. Some songs talk about our people who died in the past but also it is a call to all the Tuareg from the Sahel to get united against these threats.

I read that the album started with recording sessions with American rockstar Jack White of The White Stripes.

We haven’t worked with Jack though… Jack had invited us to record our album in Nashville in his private studio, with local Nashville musicians but because of Covid we had to cancel this recording because we were not able to travel to the USA. It was mainly a logistic problem. Producer Daniel Lanois was also supposed to join us there but he got Covid so he couldn't show up. Finally, we couldn't travel to the US so we decided to record in Algeria where we could go by ground transportation from Mali. We borrowed studio equipment from Imarhan in Tamanrasset and the French crew came from France. We recorded all our parts in Algeria then sent the tracks to Jack’s engineer in Nashville. He recorded Fats Kaplin and Wes Corbett, and Lanois did his recording and additional production in Los Angeles.

The desert blues, which you have influenced for decades has been thriving of recent with breakthrough albums by Mdou Moctar and Imarhan. How do you consider your influence on the next generations of artists?

We are very proud and happy that a lots of Tuareg musicians are now touring and releasing albums worldwide and are able to meet an audience. What is interesting is that these artists are coming from different areas of the Sahel. Imarhan are from Tamanrasset in Algeria, Mdou is from Niger. It shows the different kinds of music coming from the Sahara. People used to think that the desert blues music is all the same but that is not true, the music of Ali Farka Toure is different from Tinariwen and different from Mdou Moctar. It shows the diversity of our cultures and it is great.

Amatssou uses plenty of banjos and fiddles akin to America’s country music. Was this an experimental phase for the band or do you find that both cultures share a lot of similarities in terms of sensibilities.

In our traditional music we have an instrument called Imzad which is a one string violin, which is played by women. Tinariwen’s music is largely inspired by Tuareg traditional music. The Imzad or the Tinde (percussion and choir sung by women.) The banjo is also an instrument used in Algeria. Personally I love the picking guitar style of American country music. Our music is country music, when we started it was played by shepherds in campfires, telling the stories of the old times. We feel that our music is more connected to the nature and the nomadism like the cowboys from the old time in the west.

The album was recorded in the desert, what about the natural environment inspired the record and how was it able to translate to the finished product?

Recording in the desert is the best place for us to make music because this is how it starts. We do not feel comfortable in a studio. We did some sessions outside in the middle of the mountains, or in the tent we set up in this place. Time is not the same here, the silence is important, the echoes from the mountain, the sound of the sand under our feet, all of these are important to our creative process. I don’t know if you can feel it in the final product but for example we use the natural reverb from the mountain around us for our guitars, and claps. I think this is more about how we feel comfortable to create that particular sound.

Who else were you collaborating with for this record and what were they bringing specifically?

All the American musicians mentioned earlier brought — remotely, sadly — the country flavor we were looking for on this record. Then we had our Kabyle friend Amar Chaoui, who has collaborated with Tinariwen since Emmaar (2014) record some percussion from Paris. Hicham Bouhasse from Imarhan who is originally from Djanet, joined us there to play some additional guitars and percussion. We also invited local luth player Miloudi Mad Chaghli. Machar Aicha and Machar Fatimata came to play the Tinde and Machar Fatimata played the Imzad.

What were your influences for this record?

We were listening to some country and Tuareg bands from southern Algeria.