The desert bluesmen Tinariwen are back on the road to promote their brand new album, Imidiwan. They were recently passing by London. I met the bassist of the band Eyadou Ag Leche for a quick chat. He talked about their influences and the role of Tinariwen within the Touareg community. He also explained the signification of the Tamasheq word assuf, which is often used to describe their music.
Nicolas Roux: How was Tinariwen born?
Eyadou Ag Leche: The band was born in the eighties. When Ibrahim [Ag Alhabib] was travelling between Algeria and Libya, he discovered the electric guitar. His ideas were born when he used this instrument. He adapted these new ideas with the traditional music that already existed.
Nicolas: What does Tinariwen mean? Why did you choose that name?
Eyadou: It’s the plural of Ténéré [the desert]. It means “the deserts”. Generally speaking it’s in reference to the deserts where all the nomads live. These people have always loved their land. Their life is still close to the nature. In other words Tinariwen reflects our attachment to the desert.
Nicolas: Where does your music come from?
Eyadou: This music already existed when we were born. Our parents played it. Some Touareg poets date back more than a thousand years. It’s a very ancient music and we write our songs following this tradition.
Nicolas: On your albums Aman Iman or Imidiwan, there are traditional influences but also a more recent rock or blues sound. Have you been influenced by Western artists?
Eyadou: We really like finding out about new artists but we also want to stay true to our roots. When you discover new instruments and new sound techniques, it helps you to transfer a type of sound towards another sound that doesn’t necessarily belong to you.
Nicolas: Your music is often described as assuf. Can you explain what it means?
Eyadou: Assuf, it’s a kind of deep nostalgia that is proper to the desert people. I can’t really translate it. You always feel a kind of nostalgia, an inner pain. You don’t really know where it comes from. You feel good but also there’s a sense of nostalgia. That’s what assuf is.
Nicolas: Tinariwen has been politically engaged. What message have you strived to convey?
Eyadou: Today our message is about peace. What’s happening in our country, the situation there, is also present in other parts of the world. There’s a lot of tension everywhere and it doesn’t lead to anything. It’s still possible to have a simple life in nature. We also talk a lot about education and love.
Nicolas: You and the other band members were part of the Touareg rebellion in the nineties. Do you think your music helped to raise awareness of the situation in the Sahara?
Eyadou: Yes of course. Our music played an important role. That’s the only way we found to gather a lot of people in order to talk about what’s happening. We do not sing to create problems. We sing about the things that we see, the colours that we see in life. People must wake up. They must see things the way they are but also accept them. That’s what we talk about. Some people did wake up and the situation got better after the rebellion.
Nicolas: Earlier this year there was a peace deal concluded between the Malian government and the Touareg community. Has the situation improved since then?
Eyadou: It’s been quiet in the region. There’s a lot of politics involved. The rebellion follows its agenda and so does the Malian government. If there weren’t a peace deal, far worse problems would appear. We’d rather accept these conditions in order to secure peace. That’s always better.
Photo credit: Amiram Bukowsky