From Armed Struggle to Music

Only when the governments of Mali and Niger negotiated peace agreements with the Tuareg, did the musicians of the band Tinariwen swap their Kalashnikovs for guitars and focus on music. Naima El Moussaoui met their guitarist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni

​​Ancient, hypnotic Tuareg melodies fuse with modern rock sounds from electric guitars. The band sings about life in exile and their people's resistance in the Sahara: the Tinariwen. The result is "desert rock", music played at a military camp in the Libyan desert in the wake of the Tuareg uprising of the early eighties.

Following the peace agreement with the governments of Mali in 1992 and Niger in 1995 the Tuareg fighters of the band Tinariwen put down their weapons once and for all and picked up their instruments. They continued their resistance via music, campaigning for Tuareg emancipation, and raising awareness about the issues facing their people.

What does your band's name, Tinariwen, mean?

Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni: The word Tinariwen is from the Tuareg language, Tamasheq; it is the plural of "ténéré", which means desert. So Tinariwen means "many deserts".

The final song on your new album Aman Iman is "Izaghagh ténéré", which can be translated as "I live in the desert". It is about desert solitude. The desert is a motif running through many of your songs.

Ag Alhousseyni: The desert is our territoire; it is our country which we chose and we know it intimately. To us the desert also means freedom, identity and inspiration – infinite breadth under a clear sky. It's where we feel at home.

Tinariwen is also a name strongly associated with the Tuareg uprising resistance. Under what conditions did Tinariwen come into existence?

Ag Alhousseyni: Tinariwen were young Tuareg forced to leave Mali in the mid seventies because of the political and economic situation, much like many other Tuareg. The first and oldest were in Algeria when they got into guitar music; they first held a guitar in the hand in 1978. They began to play and sing, about exile, and about the Tuareg people.

Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni (photo: Naima El Moussaoui)
Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni joined Tinariwen in 1986 and received his military training there

​​In 1981 they joined the Tuareg freedom-fighters and went to stay in a military camp in Libya. They fought for our people's freedom and sang resistance songs. That was the official birth of Tinariwen, with Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, now the lead singer of Tinariwen, Hassan Ag Touhami and Inteyeden Ag Ableline as the other founding members. I joined in 1986 and received my military training there.

In 1990 the Tuareg uprising broke out in northern Mali and in Niger and we took part. A few years later the peace agreements were signed between the Tuareg groups, Mali and Niger. We didn't want to be integrated into the Malian army so we withdrew from the military struggle and dedicated ourselves fully to music.

And so your group became a symbol for the Tuareg struggle for freedom.

Ag Alhousseyni: Our music has always played an important role in the struggle against the repression of our people. Music is the most straightforward and influential means to sensitize people and make them aware of issues, as well as to give them hope. That's why we always had our guitars with us.

Can music and war, poetry and fighting be brought together at all?

Ag Alhousseyni: Every resistance group in the world has a musical group whose members are freedom fighters and musicians at the same time. You can fulfil two roles; you're ready if you are needed for the military struggle, because you've had military training and know what to do. At the same time you have an artistic sensibility, which is very important because it can convey lots of things. During the uprising we had to fight, but always retained the freedom to make music; we were fighting artists.

Even today you still describe yourselves as "musiciens en combat". Are you still musicians at war?

Ag Alhousseyni: Tinariwen is a group born out of struggle, so this description doesn't bother me. Today I prefer to see myself as working in the artistic, cultural field; I would rather do this than go in the military direction. For me art is more important than armed struggle. We want to spread our message musically.

What is the message in your music, which you want people to be aware of?

Ag Alhousseyni: We are calling on the Tuareg community to prepare for life in the modern world. We are saying, go to school, get involved in politics, set up business and trade, develop. These days it has become hard for the Tuareg to survive simply from their nomadic life.

How would you describe the life of the Tuareg in Mali today?

Ag Alhousseyni: I don't make distinctions within the Tuareg community. For me there is just one people – I'm talking about the Tuareg situation in general, whether in Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya or Mauretania. The Tuareg people's culture is threatened because they are nomads and represent a minority in all of these countries.

We are Muslims, yet a people who differ strongly from the majority culture in Muslim countries: in Mali, for instance, the culture, mentality and needs of the Tuareg are completely different from those of other Malians. We live in the desert, speak another language, our economy is based on breeding livestock. Anyone who stands out and is in the minority is threatened.

You sing in the Tuareg language, Tamashak, which few people understand.

Ag Alhousseyni: Am I supposed to sing in English or French because they are more accessible languages? Disregard my own language? We sing in Tamashak because it's our language!

You are often described as a Tuareg rock band; your music has been characterized as "desert rock", or "desert blues". How would you describe your music yourselves?

Ag Alhousseyni: The music we play is called "Assouf". This means nostalgia.

And it's a new type of music you created.

Ag Alhousseyni: Yes. We use that name for our music to prevent people calling it blues, rock, rock 'n' roll etc. We created this genre because our nomadic people always need new modern elements. Without innovations we will always remain the forgotten people of the desert. We need modernization to get any further. This is why at the same time the modern elements help to preserve our culture.

The main modern element is the electric guitar.

Ag Alhousseyni: When we left Libya and Niger to go home we wanted to bring something new back with us, something which hadn't previously existed in the desert, but we didn't just want to adopt another culture; we wanted to create something new for ourselves. The culture of the electric guitar is rock, but we didn't simply want to make rock music. The guitar helped us to develop our own traditional music.

Despite this, the influences of other musical styles can be heard. Your music is hard to pin down, because it fuses a great many genres: rock, blues, rock 'n' roll, reggae, raï and of course traditional Tuareg music. How did this fusion come about?

Ag Alhousseyni: We are guitarists, singers, musicians and composers. We each listen to different kinds of music and prefer different genres. One of us might be mainly into blues, another mainly Arabic music, another rock. And each composes according to his style, mood and preferences. I use lots of country music elements for instance, but I also remain faithful to our traditional music. This is how the mixture in our music is created.

Naima El Moussaoui

© 2007

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

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Website Tinariwen