- Mon Jun 21, 2010
- Yoshi's San Francisco - Live Music & Japanese Restaurant - CLOSED
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- Music, World Music
DescriptionHow do you compress a thirty-year epic into a few pages? Tinariwen, whose back-story has variously been described as “the most compelling of any band” (Songlines), “the most rock’n’roll of them all” (The Irish Times), “hard-bitten” (Slate.com) and “dramatic” (The Independent), are both a dream and a nightmare for any aspiring music writer: a dream because the most superficial ‘headlines’ of their tale – rebellion, guns and guitars, desert nomads, Ghadaffi, the real Saharan blues – are like easy nuggets of gold to thrill-seeking journalists and literary prospectors. And a nightmare, because none of these clichés really do the band justice or even begin to describe who they are, what they feel or the music they play. The following comprises only the chapter headings, the main way markers of the long road the group have travelled from the wild empty places of the southern Sahara desert to the concert stages of the world.
In the early 1960s, Mali threw off the yoke of French colonial rule and became an independent country, ruled by a new African elite from the capital Bamako. A thousand miles away in the northern desert regions, the nomadic Touareg or Kel Tamashek (‘The Tamashek speaking people’) had trouble recognising the legitimacy of their new rulers or accepting their socialist laws and taxes, their alien ways and demands. In 1963 there was a Touareg uprising in a large remote part of the desert called The Adrar des Iforas, around the small outpost of Kidal with its old French Foreign Legion fort. It was brutally suppressed by the Malian army. The period still haunts the local population like a nightmare. Of the many stories of suffering and incidents of callousness that survive in the collective memory, there is one that is crucial to our story. It concerns a mason and trader by the name of Alhabib Ag Sidi who was arrested in front of his family in the village of Tessalit, taken to the barracks in Kidal and executed for aiding the rebels. The army then went and destroyed Alhabib’s herd of camels, cattle and goats. His young four-year old son Ibrahim witnessed this wanton act of destruction before travelling north into exile in Algeria with his family and their one remaining cow. By 1964 the uprising had been crushed, and the Adrar des Iforas was turned into a no-go zone, ruled by the Army.
Ibrahim Ag Alhabib grew up in refugee camps near Bordj Moktar or in the deserts around the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset. He hated school and preferred running wild in the bush. One day he saw a film at a makeshift desert village cinema. It was a western and it featured a cowboy playing a guitar. The instrument made Ibrahim dream. He built his own guitar out of a tin can, a stick and bicycle brake wire. He started to play old Touareg melodies on it, and modern Arabic pop tunes. After a while, he became pretty good. He was a solitary kid anyway, who kept himself to himself and was known as ‘Abaraybone’ or ‘raggamuffin child’ by the other kids and adults.
At the age of 9 Ibrahim ran away from home in a cement truck, to earn some money and see the world. He grew up wandering around Algeria and Libya doing odd jobs – carpenter, builder, tailor, gardener. It was a precarious existence; made bearable by the companionship of many other young Touareg men who were living the same marginal life in exile. The northern desert regions of Mali had been struck by a catastrophic drought in 1973-4, which had almost wiped out the animal herds and the traditional nomadic way of life with it. Algeria and Libya was awash with errant exiled Touareg youth, jobless, paperless, surviving by any means necessary. They would gather together in groups and sleep rough on the outskirts of villages and towns, sharing food, cigarettes, songs and stories. The police would harass them mercilessly, shouting “Hey you! Les chomeurs! (‘unemployed’ in French).” In the age-old tradition of the underclass, this insult was turned into a badge of honour, and these young men became known as the ‘ishumar’ generation.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Ibrahim began to meet other Touareg of his age who shared his passion for music of all kinds, from traditional Touareg poetry and song to the radical chaabi protest music of Moroccan groups like Nass El Ghiwane and Jil Jilala, from Algerian pop rai to western rock and pop artists like Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, Dire Straits, Jimmy Hendrix, Boney M and Bob Marley. His most important early musical partners were Inteyeden Ag Ablil, his brother Liya, aka ‘Diarra’, Ag Ablil, and Hassan Ag Touhami aka ‘The Lion of the Desert’. This group of friends got together in Tamanrasset, and began to play at parties and weddings. They acquired their first real acoustic guitar in 1979, and their reputation grew. They were new and radical inasmuch as they wrote their own poems and songs – not the old Touareg verse of heroic deeds and fair maidens – but new lyrics about homesickness, longing, exile and political awakening. In order to keep out of trouble with the law, Ibrahim, Inteyeden and their friends would often just disappear off into the desert for a night or two, to drink tea, make music and sleep under the stars. People began to call them ‘Kel Tinariwen’, which translates literally as ‘The People of the Deserts’ or roughly and more accurately as ‘The Desert Boys’.
In 1980, Colonel Ghadaffi put out a decree inviting all young Touareg men, who were living illegally in Libya, to come and receive a full military training at a designated camp in the southern desert. It was an opportunistic move. The Touareg had long held a reputation as brilliant bushmen and desert fighters. Ghadaffi dreamed of forming a Saharan regiment, made of the best young Touareg fighters, to further his territorial ambitions in Chad, Niger and elsewhere.
Seeing it as a heaven-sent chance to learn how to be soldiers and take back their homeland by force, Ibrahim and most of his friends answered the call immediately. Their training was very tough, and lasted only nine months. Four years later, in 1985, they were invited back into a new camp near Tripoli. This time it was run by the leaders of the Touareg rebel movement, the MPA (Mouvement Populaire de l’Azawad). Ibrahim, Inteyeden, Diarra and Hassan were joined by a whole new group of aspiring musicians, including Keddou Ag Ossade aka ‘Hiwaj’, Mohammed Ag Itlale aka ‘Japonais’, Sweiloum, Abouhadid and the young Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni. They formed a collective and built their own make-shift rehearsal studios, equipping it with basic gear bought with the money from a communal chest into which all recruits paid contributions. Their job was to write songs about the rebellion, about the aspirations of the Touareg for political freedom, for education and development, and then to record these songs without payment for whoever turned up at their door with an empty cassette. It was a propaganda machine for a people without any other forms of media whatsoever. The cassettes were taken back to camps and villages throughout the Sahara, copied, and then copied again and again and again. It was a cassette-to-cassette grapevine and the sound quality was as atrocious as the message was powerful.
Ibrahim, Inteyeden, Japonais, Diarra, Hassan and their friends never saw themselves as one-dimensional propagandists however. They were musicians and poets. Their songs spoke of deep personal struggles and of their love of their desert home, as much as they raised the flag for the rebel movement. In 1989, frustrated by the lack of progress and by broken promises, the members of Tinariwen escaped from the Libyan camp and headed south into Mali. Ibrahim found himself back in Tessalit, the village of his birth, for the first time in 26 years. And then, in June 1990, the rebellion began.
It lasted about six months. The Malian government offered peace terms to the MPA in January 1991 and the Tamanrasset Accords were signed. The rebel movement split into different factions comprising those who were pro or contra the Accords. It was a confusing, desperate and often dispiriting time. Most of Tinariwen decided to leave the military life behind and go back to being musicians.
And that was it…six months of open combat in a story lasting three decades or more. No wonder the group are frustrated and bored by journalists who remain obsessed with the romantic myth of guns and guitars, of rebellion and war. In 1991, Ibrahim and his friends had no doubt that they were musicians first and foremost. They had become soldiers only out of necessity, for a brief and painful period. It was all over in a flicker.
The group headed home to Tessalit and Kidal, or went to seek work in Gao, Mopti and Bamako. Some, like Keddou, accepted posts in the army, the customs service or in education under a UN sponsored programme aimed at reintegrating rebels into civil society. In groups of two, three, four or more, they also began to play gigs openly. Touareg from all over the Sahara were delighted finally to encounter the group who had invented the modern Touareg guitar style, who had been the pied pipers of the rebellion and whose songs defined the story of a whole generation. Their secret was unveiled.
But it was a discreet success. In 1992 some of the members of Tinariwen went to Abidjan in Ivory Coast to record a cassette at the legendary JBZ studios. They played gigs for Touareg communities throughout north and West Africa, but not that often. They were nomads at heart, and the collective was often spread out over thousands of miles. But that was the group’s strength. Just two members could get together in a village with a guitar or two, a djembe or water can for percussion, and sing the songs of Tinariwen. It’s often said that every Touareg from Tamanrasset to Niamey and from Timbuktu to Ghat is a member of Tinariwen, so widely are their songs known and treasured. They are more of a social movement than a desert rock’n’roll band.
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