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Encounter with Nabil Othmani

It could have well been “the tour that never will be” for Nabil Othmani. The Algerian-born Tuareg experienced a little administrative misfortune in June, which forced him to cancel some dates. Having eventually been granted a visa, he’s landed in France for a summer tour not to be missed. After having successfully crossed a garden guarded by an impressive but nonetheless very nice dog, I’ve met him in his beautiful house in Grenoble, the French capital of the Alps. Nabil grew up in a family where music and arts are paramount, from his grandmother, a major figure in the traditional tindé genre, to his late dad, the great Baly Othmani. He recently released two albums back to back, Tamghart In, his debut, and Awalin, with long-time family collaborator, the Cherokee Native American percussionist, Steve Shehan.

Nicolas Roux: Let’s start with a little rant. You had to cancel the beginning of your tour, as you had to wait to get your visa in Algeria. What happened?

Nabil Othmani: We were stuck in Algiers for about three weeks for no apparent reasons. The fourth member of the band was denied his visa. Two others got a three-month visa and I only got a two-month one. I don’t know why. We don’t know what happened. Better not to ask!

Nicolas: You’re currently touring in Europe. How has it been so far?

Nabil: We’ve done a few dates so far in France and it’s been good. Good feedback from the audience. We’re quite happy.

Nicolas: You were born in a family of musicians. Can you introduce yourself and your family?

Nabil: My grandmother was the first tindé singer in Djanet and her brother was a poet. They inspired my father and so the whole family caught the music virus!

Nicolas: Your performance is divided in two acts. One of them is mainly based on the oud luth, a traditional Arabic instrument…

Nabil: It’s a music repertoire that my father was playing. He was the first Tuareg to play this Arabic instrument and I took over from him after his death. But what matters is the way you play it. Let’s say we’ve added the Tuareg touch to it.

Nicolas: And the second act is more about acoustic guitar and percussions.

Nabil: Yes these are the songs that my father and I have written.

Nicolas: In this part, there’s many titles from you debut album, Tamghart In, which show a variety of genres such as flamenco or reggae. What’s the concept behind it?

Nabil: It corresponds to the way I play. I like to insert other styles of music in Tuareg songs but I strive to keep the melodies Tuareg. Also, I’ve also been influenced by western African music from Mali and Senegal, where there’s a lot a various styles too. I like French music as well. I spend a lot of time listening to it.

Nicolas: Tamghart In means my mother. I guess the album is about your mother.

Nabil: Actually it’s not. My father composed that song. It’s about an argument between his mother and he. He asks for her forgiveness. He wrote the lyrics but never performed it. It’s a way for me to pay tribute to him and my grandmother.

Nicolas: What do you write about in general?

Nabil: A bit of everything. The desert, friendship, love, drought in the Sahara, our entourage… Life in general.

Nicolas: Around the same time, you also released an album with Steve Shehan, who also worked with your father. Why did you want to team up with him too?

Nabil: When Steve worked with my father, I really liked what they did but I never had the opportunity to meet him. One day I just phoned him up and we talked. Then he came to Djanet and he realised that a younger generation was awaking following Baly’s death. From that point we decided to do something together and we recorded an album [titled Awalin].

Nicolas: Would you like to collaborate with other artists?

Nabil: I love exchanges. I think some artists can bring something new to Tuareg songs and I can also give something different to them. That’s what interesting to me.

Nicolas: You come from Djanet, in the Sahara desert. If I say Djanet, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?

Nabil: It’s our mother as we say!

Nicolas: There’s a lot of bad press about the Sahara desert at the moment. Many Westerners are advised against all travel there. Do you think the region is as dangerous as it’s said in the media?

Nabil: Some things do happen outside the city but we, Djanet residents, have never seen anything there. And tourists who have visited would tell you the same thing. It’s not as risky as people say.

Nicolas: Do you like any other Tuareg musicians?

Nabil: Tinariwen, Abdallah Oumbadougou. There’s a few Malian and Nigerien artists I’d really like to work with.

Nicolas: You once said the ishumar style of Tinariwen was an ancient genre. Electric guitars, distortion pedals… it sounds rather modern to me!

Nabil: You have to look at the lyrics. When we Tuareg listen to other Tuareg bands, we listen to the lyrics rather than the melodies. And if you listen to Tinariwen for instance, their lyrics come from the old tindé genre. It’s actually the same for our band. Then we integrate this old style with electric guitars and other types of music.

Nicolas: What would you call modern style then?

Nabil: Some musicians do get out of the traditional themes to create something totally different. And that’s good. But we have to be careful not to always do this otherwise we might lose our culture.

Nicolas: Are you currently writing new material?

Nabil: Yes we’ve been working on a third album that should come out next year. We’ve gone back to the tradition. It’s something parallel to the tindé genre but not too far.

Nicolas: And if you could be in someone else’s shoes who would it be?

Nabil: Sarkozy [the French President] so I could get my visa quicker!

Nabil Othmani and Steve Shehan perform “Awalin”:

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