AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE Tinariwen

The African desert
blues of the Touareg nomads come vividly alive in a new film.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Most people in the west first heard of Tinariwen, the desert
blues band of Touareg nomads, through the Festival in the Desert, which brought
together traditional African music with rock stars like Damon Albarn of Blur. Ironic,
really, since by this point, the band had already been through a full two
decades together, overcoming poverty, political unrest and persecution to
become the voice of a nearly forgotten people.  Tinariwen: Live in London presents both sides of Tinariwen’s
story, the triumphant success and the long struggle towards it.

 

The concert footage, shot at Shepherd’s Bush in London in 2007, gives a
sense of the band’s visceral stage presence, its hypnotic drones that are
always halfway poised between heartbreak and celebration. It shows, also, the
immense popularity of this music in the UK (and elsewhere) with a packed
crowd of Westerners grooving to hallucinatory compositions.

 

The bonus features, including a mini-documentary, an
interview with producer Justin Adams, a brief instruction on how to tie a
“shesh”, or traditional Touareg turban, and, especially, a long interview with
founder Ibrahim Ag Al Habib, provide context about the world that Tinariwen
comes from. The landscapes of Northern Mali and Algeria come to life in these extra
features, their wild, sparsely populated expanses, traversed by camel caravans,
torn by war and rebellion, stunted by famine and drought, but ultimately the
source of inspiration for all of Tinariwen’s art.   

 

The main course is, obviously, the concert film, lushly
photographed from multiple camera angles, colors saturated to the glowing point
to pick out the interplay of psychedelic lighting and ornate desert costumes. Ibrahim,
tall and afro’d in the center, turns a Stratocaster into something exotic, his
sinuous bends and pull-offs a distant cousin to the blues, but wholly different.
 Guitar solos, when they come, lift off
in flurries and slides, then settle back into an intoxicating home groove.

 

Likewise, the drums, all played by hand, have a
side-slipping, caravan-like syncopation, not wholly foreign to American soul
and R&B rhythms, but bearing the unmistakable trace of the desert. The
vocals, a mournful call, a ghostly group response, are all in Tamashek, the
Touareg language, but there is no mistaking the intensity of loneliness, loss,
endurance and human triumph in their repetitive cadences.

 

This is communal, performed music, meant to tie a troubled
community together and give it hope – so it is, perhaps, not surprising that
two members of the ensemble are on stage merely to clap and groove to the beat.
A woman dancer carves out serpentine curves, waves and ovals with her hands,
the motions somewhere between conducting and interpretative dance.  At one point, she faces the blue-turbaned bass
player, curling her fingers towards his fretboard, as if she could coax the
notes right out of the instrument.

 

Throughout the show, footage is uniformly excellent,
alternating between close-ups of the players and longer shots showing how they
are all connected together. One camera captures weathered fingers on a guitar
neck, another pulls out to document little jump kicks by the bass player, a
third widens the view to show the whole ensemble in pendulous sway. The
costumes are lovely – a white headdress and mouth veil for one guitar player, a
shimmery tunic for Ibrahim, a blue tunic and hanging headdress for the bass
player. The female dancer wears a shiny, waist-length veil, which must be
continually rearranged as she performs her stately, sideways shimmy. If you
haven’t seen Tinariwen – and if you don’t live in a major city or go to
Coachella you probably haven’t – this film is a wonderful second best.

 

The concert film is so uplifting, so celebratory, that you
might forget how much difficulty lies behind it.  That’s where the bonus features come in,
reminding you what a miracle it is that these musicians are even alive, let
alone playing successfully at some of the largest concert halls in Europe. The best of these bonus features, “Ibrahim: The
Campfire Tales”, is the least elaborately produced. It is simply Ibrahim,
recounting his life in front of a fire, somewhere in the desert.

 

It’s an extraordinary life. When he was three years old,
Malian government forces came for his father, just after breakfast one day and
he never returned. Ibrahim only heard later, from other children, that his
father had been shot. Three days later, the soldier returned and killed all but
one of the family’s cattle. (The remaining cow was old and perversely liked to
follow the goats, so was not found among the others.)  His family left for Algeria by night shortly after, and
his grandfather died on the trip. They lived on the frontier between Mali and Algeria for about five years. At
nine, Ibrahim ran away to find work, hiding under a tarpaulin in a cement truck
to make the journey north. Odd jobs sustained him through his teenage years. Once
after working for six months in an Arab family’s garden, he used his wages to
buy a sewing machine, some cloth and scissors, hoping to make a living sewing
Touareg clothing. He got his first guitar here, in Algeria, after befriending an Arab
musician and saving to buy his instrument. Then in the 1980s, he and the other
young Malian emigrants heard that Colonel Qadaffi was training a rebel army. They
trained all day in the camps, but sang songs at night. Ibrahim convinced the
soldiers to chip in to buy him a guitar. It was at these camps that he and
friends Inteyeden, Diara and Hassan “Abin Abin” began playing together,
recording their first cassettes and performing at weddings and baptisms.  They called themselves “Ked Tinariwen” or
“people of the desert”.

 

In the early 1990s, Ibrahim returned to Mali for the first time since he
was a small boy, fighting in the Malian rebel forces by day and making music by
night. With the peace accord of 1994, he was finally able to devote his full
life to music and, he says, to helping other people understand his people, his
desert, his way of life.

 

The harshness of Touareg life filters through into the
songs, with lines like “they murdered the old folk and the child just born,”
yet also its resilience. You can hardly hear songs like “Chet Boghassa” or
“Amassakoul N’Tenere” without swaying slightly, from side to side, or at least
tapping a foot or a finger. You could enjoy the live footage of Live in
London
on pure aesthetic terms, as a trance-inducing oasis of serenity and
groove, but that would be missing the point. It’s much more meaningful to
appreciate it as a celebration of survival against overwhelming odds.

 

[For an
interview/feature on Tinariwen that we previously published when we were still
Harp magazine, go HERE.
]

 

 

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