Alhousseïni Abdoulahi–a.k.a. Abdallah–is the spokesman for the celebrated Tuareg folk/rock band Tinariwen. In the summer of 2004, the band was making yet another European tour, and preparing for their first American one, to begin in October of that year. Banning Eyre reached him by telephone in France. The two had often met before, in France, Spain, at the 2003 Festival in the Desert in Essakane, Mali, and at the Smithsonian Folkways Festival in Washington, DC. But they had never had the chance to talk about Tinariwen’s remarkable history. It’s a story of nomadism, war, and guitar songs. Here’s how Abdallah told it, speaking on a cell phone as the band’s nomadic life continued on a tour bus, somewhere in France…
Banning Eyre: Abdallah. Good to speak with you again. We’re really looking forward to having Tinariwen in the U.S..
Abdallah: We are too. For years and years, Tinariwen has hoped to come to America, always.
Banning Eyre: Abdallah, let’s talk about you, how you got started in life, in music, and how you hooked up with Tinariwen.
Abdallah: I was born in 1968, southeast of Kidal, in the circle we call Tamasina. The biggest desert in Mali is there. It’s a zone of camels, no other animals. So I was born and grew up there, and then in 1982 there was the first outbreak of the Tuareg rebellion. There was a post in that zone called Inlamawen. The person who was organizing the operation there came to our camp. I was just a kid then. He came among my family. His name was Rona, and he had a cassette that he had recorded with Ibrahim and Inteyeden and Hassan. He played that for the kids to sensitize them [about the struggle]. He played that cassette all the time. This was the first time I had seen a radio or a cassette player. I didn’t know the guitar, but I understood the singing because it was in Tamascheck. Then in 1983, I was in Tamarasset in Algeria. This is the big Tuareg capital in the south of Algeria. This is a crossroads, a town where there are all the Tuaregs of Mali, Niger, Algeria and Libya.
Banning Eyre: Did you travel there because of the rebellion?
Abdallah: No. I had a big sister who had left Mali in 1973 to settle there. So I left the drought and went to see my big sister. At that time, this was a la mode–Tamarasset, Libya–this was the thing for all the young Tuaregs in the early 80s. Lots of people would go to these places and return to the dessert with radios, cassette players and things like that. So I went out of curiosity to see Algeria and Libya. In Algeria in 1983, I saw some members of Tinariwen, Ibrahim and Hassan. They were playing guitars, but at that time, I was ashamed to play the guitar because that was not part of our tradition. Many Tuaregs did not understand someone playing the guitar. In the Tuareg tradition, only the griots played something like a guitar, the tehardent. Then in 1984, 85, I really started to get interested in listening to guitar songs.
Banning Eyre: Did you know these were the same guys you had heard on that cassette?
Abdallah: Yes. I recognized the songs. In the quarter where I stayed in Tamarasset, there were a lot of young people nearby, my neighbors, who listened to the same songs, even before I saw Ibrahim. Ibrahim was a celebrity at that time. He played the guitar very well with his friend Inteyeden, who died in 1995, and Hassan. Everybody knew them. One day they came to my quarter and played with some other young people in the neighborhood. That was in 1983. After that, I got really interested in the guitar because these were songs that talked about the drought, about the situation of the Tuareg in the desert. By 1985, the songs were getting more developed. People were getting really interested. In 1986, I left for Libya, Tripoli. In Libya, the guitar is the only instrument the Tuareg used. When you arrived there, you had to be interested in Tuareg guitar. Lots of young Tuareg played guitar. So when I got there in 1986, I was completely engaged in listening to that music, trying to play, getting to know the artists. Then in Libya, by chance, I saw Ibrahim a second time. That was interesting.
Banning Eyre: How did you make these long trips?
Abdallah: We went in a rented 4×4 to Libya. I did not own or play guitar yet, but that was the moment when I got interested. When I went to Libya, it was to find work in Bhangazi. That’s the second capital of Libya. I stayed there for all of 1986 and afterwards went back to Tamarasset. So in Tamaresset, stayed just two weeks, then back to Libya in 1987. I went straight to the Tuareg camp, where they did military training. I had decided to join the rebellion. This was in Tripoli. This was where I encountered the whole group Tinariwen, Ibrahim, Japonais, Hassan, Inteyeden, Khedou, everyone.
Banning Eyre: Now, this is the third time you’ve run into Ibrahim. Seems like you were destined to be together.
Abdallah: Voila. The third time, I found them in a military camp in Tripoli. They had already become soldiers. I was the last member of Tinariwen to get military training. The group had formed in 1985 in another military camp in Libya. They had looked for equipment and taken the name Tinariwen. “Tinariwen” is the plural of desert.
Banning Eyre: This was around the time the Americans attacked Khadafi in Libya.
Abdallah: Yes. That was in 1986. Each time I went among them, there was a rehearsal, so I began to rehearse with all the members of Tinariwen. At the same time, for the whole of 1987, I was getting my military training. In 1988, I finished. I left the military camp, and went to look for work, 1988, 89. In 1990, we all went back to Mali, the whole group Tinariwen. Me, Ibrahim, Inteyeden, Hassan, Khedou, we all went back. In June, the rebellion broke out in Mali. That was a very hard time. We were in the mountains with the people and involved in all the events of 1990–June, July, August, right through to January 1991. That was when they made the first accord in Tamarasset. January 6, 1991.
Banning Eyre: Did you fight in the rebellion?
Abdallah: Yes. In June 1990, the fighting started and we were all in the mountains, all the members of Tinariwen. Each of us had come independently. We were not together. We all knew that the rebellion was starting in Mali and we all went there and found one another in the mountains. Then there was war, from June through December. We were in the mountains fighting. We played guitars, we carried arms as well.
Banning Eyre: Music and war together.
Banning Eyre: I’ve read that Ibrahim was wounded in the war.
Abdallah: No, it was not Ibrahim who was wounded in the war. It was Khedou. He was badly wounded. Then, after the signing of the accord, there was a Tuareg woman from Abidjan who came to invite us to Abidjan to record an album. So some members of Tinariwen went to record this album, me, Khedou, Hassan, and one other. This was 1991. We recorded an album, and then returned to Tamarasset. We were between there and the mountains all the time. After the accord of 1991, there was not total peace. There were always groups who were not satisfied and who attacked the Malian Army, right up to 1996.
Banning Eyre: That was when they burned a huge pile of surrendered armaments in Timbuktu, right? I remember watching that on television in Bamako.
Abdallah: Exactly. That was the last accord between the Tuareg and the Malian government. By that time, we had decided to live as artists. We did not want to be integrated into the Malian national army. It wasn’t a decision we made as a group. Each individual decided for himself, each one in his own head. None of us decided to stay in the army except Khedou. He went into the army. During this time, we moved between the north of Mali, also Niger and Algeria. Because you have Tuareg in all these places, so we moved among them doing little concerts. We didn’t move together as a group, but we would know where someone was, and each time we would come together, in Mali, in Niger, in Algeria. We’d spend a week together, or a month, and the separate. Sometimes one of us would be alone for five months. Or two of us would travel together for a time. That’s how it was.
Banning Eyre: Is this why the membership of the group seems to change a lot? Sometime it seems more like an extended family than a band.
Abdallah: If you talk about the real members of Tinariwen who have been together a long time, you are talking about me, Hassan, Ibrahim, Inteyeden who is dead, Diarra, Khedou, Japonais, Souilam, and a certain Mohamed we call Wahadi who is in Libya. That’s nine people. There are many Tuaregs who play the music of Tinariwen, who do the same thing as Tinariwen. We can’t count them, but from time to time, for example when I am alone, there are lots of young Tuareg who play our music. From time to time, I do concerts with them. If there is not a member of Tinariwen, I will use one of them.
Banning Eyre: So when you started, few Tuaregs played guitar. Now many do. That’s a big change. It seems like guitar is now central in modern Tuareg culture. I that right?
Abdallah: Yes. Since 1985-86, all the Tuareg have become interested in this music. It has become a modern Tuareg music. For young Tuaregs today, this is their music. It is played in marriages. This is what they play, and it’s been that way for some years.
Banning Eyre: What would you say are the influences in this music?
Abdallah: In fact, this music came via Ibrahim. He was the first one who played it. In 1976, 77, he was living on the Algerian border. What he’s told me is that he always wanted to play guitar, electric guitar. One day, he met someone with an acoustic guitar in Tamarasset, and right away he thought that what he was playing on bottles and things like that would work on this instrument. So he bought this guitar and started playing. He also composed songs. At that time, they were three, Ibrahim, Hassan and Inteyeden. They made the initial venture.
Banning Eyre: What kind of music were they listening to then?
Abdallah: In that time, they knew mostly Arab-Algerian music. But at the same time, you had cassettes of Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown. These tapes had been finding their way into the desert for a long time. So when they started playing guitars they were also listening to the music of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and lots of other Americans who played guitar. So they had influence from these genres of music, and also Maghreb music from Morocco, Algeria, etc. That was the original members, but we who came after them, we had other influences, first from them, but also Ali Farka Toure. When I started playing in 1985, 86, we had that influence too.
Banning Eyre: You were part of the second wave, eh?
Abdallah: Voila. When we started to play this music, it was not so complicated because we already had the music of Tinariwen, of Ali Farka Toure, as well as Bob Marley and all that.
Banning Eyre: Let’s get the story of that first international album, The Radio Tisdas Sessions.
Abdallah: In 1999, some members of Tinariwen were invited by the group Lojo to come play in France. So we went, me and Hassan and Khedou. We were invited to a festival called Toucouleurs. This was our first time in France. After the concert, Philippe Brix, the manager of the group asked us, “Would it be possible to have a music festival in the desert?” We told him, yes, its possible to have a festival in the desert. Why not? We had never seen a festival there. It’s true that there are traditional parties that happen there among families, but not a real festival where you invite foreign musicians, set up a sound system and all that. He said he was going to come and look. He asked what part of the desert would be good for a festival. We proposed Kidal, near us.
That was 1999. In 2000, Philippe came to the desert. He came to the place we proposed. Then 2001, he came with the whole group Lojo, also Justin Adams and Andy Morgan who was with the press in England, a journalist. They came with a technical crew and some materials. They talked to other Tuaregs in Mali, like the director of the festival, Manny Antsar and others, and they organized a festival in 2001. They spent the year of 2000 planning, and arrived in 2001 to do it. They came with recording gear, and after the festival, we worked at Radio Tisdas to make the first album. There was no electricity in Kidal. Jean-Paul Romann of Lojo and Justin Adams were the producers. In fact, we had not had the intention of recording an album before that, but we hoped it would someday be possible. So when they came and said they were ready, we did it right away.
Banning Eyre: That album has turned out to be very successful internationally. Was that a surprise to you?
Abdallah: It was a real surprise for us, and yet it was not, because we have talked for a long time about the idea of doing concerts in Europe and America. Each time we watch the television and we see musicians on stage, and we ask ourselves, “How can we go to Europe? How can we go to America?” We have wanted this. In 1989 when we went to Europe and met Philippe and Lojo, we saw that this was something possible. We could do this. Before that, we didn’t see how it could happen.
Banning Eyre: What about the new album, Amassakoul. This recording represents something of an evolution, doesn’t it?
Abdallah: Since the first album we’ve been speaking with Lojo and Philippe about recording another album. But we never had the means to prepare it. Because for us, it’s very difficult to be together. In the desert in Mali, we can’t stay together, because we can’t live by music. It’s difficult. There are no materials to do concerts, no concert halls. Music doesn’t work. So it was hard to get together. But in 2003, Philippe and our manager decided to bring the musicians to Bamako to stay for one month together to prepare the new album. So we came to Bamako. We took a house, and we stayed for one month with a sound engineer. We arranged the songs, and worked on our ideas. After a month, we had prepared the songs. Then we went to the studio and recorded the album in three days at Studio Bogolon. Then they took the recordings and mixed them in Europe. We are very happy with the record.
Banning Eyre: I’m interested that you have a rap song on there, “Arawan.”
Abdallah: In fact, that was my song. I wrote the words and the music. Today, rap music has become the music of youth, whether in Africa or Europe, or America. You have to know that in Tuareg tradition, it’s the youth who mostly listen to music, not old people. So today, all the young Tuareg especially those who are not nomads, are interested in rap music. Each time we do a concert, they come to us and ask: why don’t we have any songs that resemble rap and rock, the music that they listen to from the West? You see? So one day, I thought about this and decided to create a song. It was a request. I tried to write a song especially for the youth. I am not a person who had ever thought about making rap music, but I did it. And I found that it’s not bad to make a rap, not specifically rap, but something of my culture, of my nature. Something that resembles rap but that is played in the same way we play our music. We didn’t do it with machines, just with my guitar and some percussion.
Banning Eyre: In the words, you talk about the forgotten people of the desert. Is that a message that resonates with Tuareg youth?
Abdallah: Rap is a music where you can easily pass all kinds of messages. It’s not hard. So this first song is a way of remembering the Tuareg leaders who were in the rebellion and all those affairs. I say in the words, that these people have disappeared into their territories but nobody thinks about that. Why? So that’s the first text in that song.
Banning Eyre: There’s one song on this album where you did not translate the lyrics. That’s “Chet Boghassa.”
Abdallah: Chet Boghassa means “the girls of Boghassa.” Boghassa is a village in the desert. I wrote that song. It was during the rebellion. I tried to remember the women of Boghassa and to say that we would liberate that village, because at that time, the Malian troops were in Boghassa. “We will take it back.” The song talks about that.
Banning Eyre: A lot of Tinariwen songs talk about life in the desert, especially this idea of separating and coming together. That life has really shaped this group, hasn’t it? Maybe more than anything else.
Abdallah: That’s the life of the desert nomad. It’s true. It’s not that the group wants to separate. It’s an obligation. This is the way to live in the desert. We talk a lot about nostalgia, all the time, all the time. Look at our lives. In the past, we were in exile in Algeria and Libya for a long time. Returning to Mali, our parents always lived in the desert. We were no longer nomads who lived with the animals. We were looking for lives in the towns, with music and other things. It’s not easy to go and visit our parents in the desert. We have to rent or buy a 4×4 and it’s expensive. So our lives are always in nostalgia. That has not changed right up to today. Where I was born and grew up, I have not seen from 1982 right up to today. That’s 22 years. My friends too, it’s the same thing. For them to visit their families is very difficult. So that has required us to sing a lot about nostalgia in our music. And that also makes a strong resemblance between our music and the blues.
Blues is a music that was created in a situation of nostalgia, difficult conditions. Our music was created in some of the same conditions as the blues, exile, suffering, separation from relatives. So when we made music, we were obligated to make a kind of music like the blues. You think, you compose. You don’t create rock music or dance music, like Latin music. You are obligated to make music more like the blues.
Banning Eyre: Then there’s the music itself, the sound, the use of guitars, the whole feeling of the music.
Abdallah: That’s it. If you want the truth, all the members of Tinariwen listened to the blues. For years, a lot of these cassettes found their way into the desert in Africa. All the members of Tinariwen are interested in blues, more than in other types of music. When I hear someone who plays blues, like John Lee Hooker, that pleases me. I adore that. The other day, we played in London with an American blues man, Taj Mahal. We prepared a song and performed on stage together. It wasn’t difficult for us to play with someone like that. It was very sympathetic.
Banning Eyre: I expect that when you come here you’ll have lots of opportunities like that.
Abdallah: When I was in Washington last year and played with you, that really pleased me too.
Banning Eyre: Kind of you to say so. The feeling was certainly mutual.
Abdallah: One day, we’ll bring you to the desert, not during a festival, but at a very simple moment. We’ll play music with you. We’ll bring you among the nomad family to see the real nomad music. You will see that it is the blues. It’s jazz. It’s things like that.
Banning Eyre: We must to that, Abdallah. In Sh’Allah!
Abdallah: In Sh’Allah.
Banning Eyre: Congratulations on a great album. We can’t wait to welcome Tinariwen to the United States.
Abdallah: I too look forward to that. We count on you to explain something about us to other Americans. You know us and our place a little. That’s good.
Banning Eyre: Believe me, Abdallah. It’s an honor.