Eric Mulet  



heir name - Tinariwen - means 'empty spaces', drawn from the desert that the members of the band call home. Nomadic Touaregs of northeastern Mali, they met in the early 1980s during a period of exile and social upheaval, and began to perform while in a refugee camp. They evolved their own sound - a rhythmic, mesmerizing blend of their own musical tradition, with its choruses and percussive handclaps, mixed with rock, reggae and blues stylings. The conflict has subsided, but the music still evokes a longing and a call for justice that has found an eager audience worldwide. TUNZA caught up with the band in Mali, where they were recording their third album, due out in 2006.

Q Clearly the desert landscape influences the songs you write. Now that the band often travels worldwide to perform, do you find you must reconnect with the desert in order to compose?

A Our music has always been about the desert, our experience of the desert, and our people's experience of the desert. When we were young, living in Tamanrasset in Algeria, we used to go off with our mates, a guitar and some tea and spend time out in the bush, just talking, playing music and hanging out. That's why people kept calling us 'Kel Tinariwen' - the desert boys. But yes, we need to have plenty of experience of the desert in order to create our music. We like travelling, but the desert is our home and always will be.

Q What would you say is the essence of the desert?

A For us the desert is about our family, our friends, our people, our customs and our way of life. But it's also about freedom. There's so much space, so much sky. No one bothers you. You can drive where you want, and just sit under the sky drinking tea, playing music, cooking food. It's a calm existence, and we can't do without it.

Q Tell us a bit about some of the traditional instruments you use.

A We don't really play traditional instruments. The point about Tinariwen is that we made the leap from traditional to modern instruments. The guitar has always been our main instrument, and in the desert, there are plenty of people who just call our music 'guitar'. Sometimes one of us - Ibrahim - does play the shepherd's flute, which has a lovely sound, like the desert wind. And on the new album we have experimented a bit with using the traditional lute, which we call teherdent. Maybe in the future we will go back to our roots more and start using other traditional instruments like the imzad or the tindé drum. Those instruments are the basis of all our music, and we haven't forgotten them.

Q You have always used music to transmit messages as well as inspire and entertain. What aspect of your music do you think people connect with the most?

A Yes, it's true that we have used music to transmit messages. But our songs have always been about our own experiences and those of people we know. In that sense, they're all personal. It's just that at times, we were living through very hard situations influenced by - and influencing - politics. We were singing about our destiny, and about the lessons we had to learn in order to face up to the reality of what was going on around us. When we tour internationally, people don't understand our language, Tamashek. But if they enjoy our melodies, rhythms and sounds, that's a good start! We also hope our audiences learn something about the desert and our culture, and see that we're people just like everybody else, trying to do the best we can in difficult circumstances.

Q As people of the Sahara, you have a unique perspective on its rich and vulnerable ecosystem. What do you think is the most important thing for young people to know about the desert environment?

A When people talk about 'ecosystem' it often seems like something exotic, apart from them, something they can do without. In the desert, the nomad understands that his environment is his life. There's no separating the two. We were all born nomads, and even if we now live in houses and towns, we still respect the desert, because we know that it makes us who we are, and in the end, it is what we will return to. It's also very important for youth to appreciate that all the things modern life offers, like electricity, cars, CD players and the Internet, are very fragile. Who knows how long they will last?

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