Entertainment Features Interview Lifestyle Music

An Interview with The Kings of Desert Blues: Tinariwen

Dubbed the “Kings of the Desert Blues Genre”, Mali rockers Tinariwen are heading back to Australia on their World Tour to promote their ninth album Elwan. The album saw them nominated for the 2018 Best World Album Grammy, another achievement to add to their ever-growing list.

Forming in Algeria in the 1980s, the band returned to Mali and travelled around playing the festival circuit. In 2007, their critically acclaimed album Aman Iman gained an international following. Five years later, they won the Grammy for Best World Music Album for Tassili, and have been cited as inspiration for artists like Thom York and TV on the Radio.

If you’re around Marickville on March 15, catch them play at The Factory Theatre with supports Moussa Diakite & Wassado + GJ Paris Groovescooter.

ELWAN album art. Source.

I got to chat to the guys of Tinariwen about their politically charged music and their growth as a band.

L: Coming from playing makeshift instruments around a campfire in the desert, was there any expectation that Tinariwen would gain an international following?

T: We had no idea we would get this much of a following today! We were the first band coming from Sahara who were successful outside of their own country.

L: Did you know when you began that you would completely shape a genre of music?

T: Of course not! Our music is a prolongation of the traditional Tuareg music (The Tinde). When we began playing with handmade guitars and then electric guitars, percussion and bass it became the Tinariwen sound!

L: How do European and Australian audiences differ from when you play locally?

T: In Africa we play in totally different contexts. Usually at parties within our local community, like weddings or gatherings. People dance in a specific way and the women ululate.

L: How does it feel to play to people in your own language? Does the language barrier determine the effect the music has on the audience?

T: It’s always great to play for people who understand the lyrics, but our lyrics have been translated in English and are easy to find on our records and on the Internet, so more people can get our message. When you see Tinariwen live, the musicality of the words and the transcendental aspect of our music overcomes the lyrics’ understanding.

L: You started with the philosophy of being a family of poets, rather than an exclusive band. Do you think this freedom of inclusion and expression has helped to shape your music?

T: Definitely. Tinariwen has always welcomed new members from different generations in the band and collaborated with many other artists outside of the band.  It makes our music evolve with the times.

Tinariwen. Source.

L: You began sharing your music by performing free shows to anyone with a blank cassette and a tape recorder. When did you realise you were going to be such a big influence on other desert rock musicians?

T: When we started touring worldwide and realised many people we had never met knew our songs… That was a great surprise, very promising. We‘ve seen new bands coming from the Sahara like Tamikrest, Terakaft and Imarhan. This is a great achievement for us as it makes our music and our message spread around the world!

L:  Your music has been described as rebellious since the beginning, in its sound and lyrical content. Do you think there will always be room for music as a form of political resistance?

T: As long as people are oppressed, there will be room for protest music.

L: Your biggest influences when you began were from Moroccan protest songs as well as Western icons like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. Is there any new music, political or otherwise, that you’ve been loving?

T: We like traditional Tuareg music styles such as Tinde and Imzad. We also like Ariabian lute, Malian blues from Timbuktu.

L: Tell me about winning a Grammy.

T: It’s a great honour, obviously, even if this kind of award sounds very abstract for us. We were nominated this year but we did not get it this time.

You can catch Tinariwen at Factory Theatre in Marrickville on March 15. For full World Tour dates and links to their new album, check out their website.