THEY HAVE been described by The Guardian as “the best African band in the world”. Live, they have played support to The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Their musical scope is such that in a recent interview Chris Martin said Tinariwen was a “great influence” on Coldplay’s new album Viva La Vida.
They are Tinariwen and they play the Festival Big Top on Tuesday July 22 at 7.30pm (with Mayra Andrade ) as part of the Galway Arts Festival.
Listening to Tinariwen feels like entering into a secret society. Friends will place The Radio Tisdas Sessions, Ammassakoul, or Aman Iman albums in your hands accompanied by the words ‘You have to listen to this – it’s amazing!’ With 11 members and a strong emphasis on percussion and vocal harmony, Tinariwen’s music is communal and rebellious and strikes a chord with many people.
The band was formed in Gaddafi’s Tuareg rebel camps in Mali in 1982 and the lyrical subjects cover independence from the Mali government and the preservation of their nomadic heritage. Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni first heard Tinariwen’s rebellious music on tape around this time and it was to have a profound effect on him.
“Their songs were very important” he tells me through an interpreter. Their message was like an alarm call for us young Touareg men. We had no other means of knowing or understanding what was going on in the desert, if it wasn’t through Tinariwen’s songs.
“You have to understand that in 1982 I was living in the Tamesna [a huge and very arid area of the desert between Mali and Niger] I hadn’t even visited Kidal by then, let alone Bamako, Algiers, London, or Paris. Tinariwen’s songs cut through the isolation in which we were living and turned on the light in our heads. So, yes, the music was very, very important at that time.”
Abdallah later joined the group as bass guitarist. As well as music in the Tishoumaren style, Abdallah and the band are influenced by many Western artists, particular politically-aware songwriters like Bob Marley and Bob Dylan.
“Each member of the group has their own favourite artists and influences,” says Abdallah. “My own personal taste is for acoustic music - especially country and western and folk. I do love Bob Dylan’s music, for example, even though I don’t understand a word he’s singing about! I think there’s something in his voice that tells me immediately he’s singing about real and vital subjects, without fear or compromise. I find that incredibly powerful.”
It would not be at all surprising if Abdallah one day found himself collaborating with Dylan. In recent years Tinariwen have been championed by the Rolling Stones and Robert Plant. Irish audiences would have seen the group playing Slane Castle in August last year with the Stones .
It’s not easy for a European to feel interest for a music made in such a profoundly different and sung in a totally strange language, with strange sounds and scales and melodies,” says Abdallah “This kind of music needs champions in the west, trusted figures who can persuade people to listen to something outside what is normal for them. So we are very, very happy that those kind of people talk about Tinariwen and, for example, Robert Plant has become a friend and in a way a fellow Touareg!
“Playing with the Stones was an experience I’ll never forget and seeing so many people in one place at one time was absolutely fantastic. It made me think what would happen if you took a nomad out from the desert where I come from by helicopter and brought him straight to a Rolling Stones concert - his head would probably explode!”
As well as the support of the Stones, Plant, and Coldplay in making people more aware of Tinariwen, Ry Cooder, Damon Albarn, Bonnie Raitt and Liam O’Maonlai have also travelled to Mali and participated in a number of musical projects there.
“My feelings can only be positive,” says Abdallah. “Why not? If other great musicians are passionate about Malian music, then it only makes me happy.”
Since the 1980s the ‘Dark Continent’ has very much been in the public consciousness and Irish musicians Bob Geldof and Bono have been to the forefront of charity work including the Live Aid concert and the Conspiracy of Hope tour. Although Abdallah acknowledges their contribution towards famine relief he also adds a note of caution as to how they portray Africa.
“These are very remote people for me,” he says. “My message to them would be to not make Africa an object of pity. It is much more than that and we Africans can even teach you Europeans some things, believe me!”
In recent years Tinariwen have been among the best ambassadors for Africa as they let the music do the talking. They have appeared on Later With Jools Holland and BBC World’s The Beat and have headlined at festivals throughout Europe and the US. In a recent review, Q declared: “If they were not nomads from Mali, Tinariwen might be called a garage band. They share with the White Stripes the voguish virtues of a stripped-down guitar sound, lent extra weight by the plaintive quality of Saharan electric blues.”
They have always found a captive audience in Ireland and their show in Galway should be no different. “We’re definitely looking forward to Ireland,” says Abdallah. “Our audiences in Ireland have always been fantastic, very warm, very enthusiastic and uninhibited”
For tickets contact the Galway Arts Festival Box Office, 1-5 Merchants Road, on 091-566577. Online booking is through www.galwayartsfestival.com