Tinariwen: from the Sahara to New York City

Tinariwen have been exporting their acclaimed brand of desert rock to a worldwide audience for a decade. Former manager Andy Morgan caught up with them on tour in New York

To download an exclusive eight-track live album by Tinariwen - for free - visit observer.co.uk/tinariwen-album-download

'They must wonder who we are," mutters Elaga Ag Hamid, Tinariwen's rhythm guitarist, as he ambles through New York's Meatpacking district in full Tuareg regalia en route to the Observer photo-shoot. The other four members currently making up this fluid group of musicians saunter with him, similarly dressed, past rubbernecking locals who hide their bafflement behind shades and surreptitious glances. "Maybe Bin Laden," Elaga suggests. "Or the mafia!" His head and body are almost completely covered by a tightly wrapped turban and flowing purple robes, but his exposed eyes betray the gleam of a mischievous smile.

Behind him, Abdallah "Catastrophe" Ag Alhousseyni, Tinariwen's acoustic guitarist and second lead vocalist, is cursing both the heat and the promo duties that inevitably hog the big-city schedules of one of the world's best-known African bands, especially with a brand new album weeks away from global release. I sympathise with Abdallah's impatience, even though, as a journalist on assignment to cover their lightning stay in New York, I'm part of the problem. Having managed Tinariwen for seven years before giving up showbiz to write full-time, I understand the purgatory of the media machine and the guaranteed homesickness of Tuareg musicians. After all, this vertical, sky-defying city is pretty much deficient in everything that makes Tinariwen's desert home so magical: space, time, unfettered nature and endless horizontal horizons.

As we approach the Hudson, which is looking uncharacteristically blush and beautiful in the dying heat of the day, Tinariwen's leader and founder, 50-year-old Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, wears a mask of grim stoicism. The temperature is soaring way past 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the air is a hot soup of exhaust fumes and urban roar. Not that record-breaking temperatures normally bother Tinariwen. Their home in the Sahara is one of the hottest places on Earth but the heat they're used to is bone-dry. Here, it's more like being in a hot tub in the Amazon jungle.

Truth is, apart from the humidity, New York doesn't faze Tinariwen any more. After all, it's their sixth or seventh visit to the city. They're no longer the neophytes who emerged from 20 years of obscurity in the Sahara and strode proudly and innocently on to the world stage a decade ago. Their stark style of Tuareg desert rock, its bony, whiplash guitar, its rolling, loping momentum, its skeletal handclaps and cracked sandpaper vocals, its dusty-foot poetry and lyrical explorations of awareness, longing and revolt have metaphorically conquered the world. Their A-list fan club continues to grow: Bono, Robert Plant, Thom Yorke, Carlos Santana, Henry Rollins, Mick Jones, Madness… the list is long. Their gig tally is more than 1,000 and counting. Next week it's Tokyo; next month, Rio de Janeiro.

All the current members of Tinariwen were born between 30 and 50 years ago in nomad camps in the far north-east of Mali, but their nomadic beat is no longer the silent plains, black basaltic hills and sandy, waterless riverbeds of the southern Sahara. Even though they still live in Mali and Algeria with their families – none of them has ever harboured the slightest desire to emigrate to Europe or America – budget hotels, airport terminals and motorway service stations now form the backdrop to their roaming existence, their nomadism 2.0.

Touring the world is every musician's dream, and guitarists from the deepest Sahara are no different, but I get the impression that Tinariwen tolerate their groundhog-day existence on the road mainly because it gives them a platform from which to raise global awareness about their fragile culture and troubled homeland and earns them money to support a wide network of family and friends back home.

"When I was young, I used to look at a map of the world and dream of all the places in the world I wanted to see: Europe, America, Japan," an exhausted Ibrahim murmurs to me a few days later in his motel room in upstate New York, as he lies on his bed nursing the severe back pain that has been persecuting him since Seattle. "I wanted to see the world as a musician and now I'm doing it. So I'm happy."

When he had those youthful dreams in the 1980s, Ibrahim was a young, jobless, Tuareg migrant scratching a living in Algeria and Libya. He had been hounded out of his homeland in north-eastern Mali with his family in the early 1960s, while still a child. His father, a mason, was arrested in 1964 for aiding a Tuareg rebellion that broke out against the newly independent government of Mali and executed by firing squad.

Ibrahim carried the anger on his shoulders throughout his childhood and adolescence. In 1979, with his friend Inteyeden, who died of a mysterious illness in 1994, Ibrahim picked up a guitar and adapted traditional Tuareg rhythms and melodies, mixing them with the pop sounds of North Africa and beyond – Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Dire Straits were seminal outside influences.

The pair invented a style of desert rebel rock to express their homesickness, their brooding, rebellious anger, their feelings and anxieties about the sufferings of their own stateless disenfranchised people.

When Africa threw off the colonial yoke in the late 1950s and 1960s, the cause of the nomadic Tuareg, who had lorded over the southern Sahara for centuries, was lost in the melee and their pleas for autonomy went unheard. Like the Kurds, they saw their ancestral homelands sliced up between a number of new, independent states – Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya and Upper Volta (now renamed Burkina Faso) – whose rulers had little sympathy or understanding of their tribal hierarchies and nomadic ways.

Rebellions in the 1960s and 1990s, together with disastrous droughts in the mid-1970s and 1980s, which all but wiped out the animal herds on which the nomads depended for survival, shattered the Tuaregs' desert idyll and millennial isolation, forcing thousands of their young men to leave home in search of work.

During these years, Ibrahim and many of his fellow countrymen walked across vast arid expanses of sand and rock to the oil-rich states of Libya and Algeria with five-litre plastic water cans strapped to their backs and a combustible mixture of hope and anger in their hearts. Ibrahim's band, Tinariwen, became the pied pipers of these jobless adventurers, this Saharan generation X, these ishumar, as they're known in their native tongue Tamasheq – a twisting of the French word chômeur, meaning "unemployed". Then, after more than a decade in exile, the band members all returned to Mali and fought in the great Tuareg rebellion of the early 1990s. "It was hard during the rebellion for me," he says. "But it healed me. I forgot everything, even the death of my father. It was like therapy."

A favourite way station on the route to Libya and exile in the 1980s was the town of Djanet in south-eastern Algeria. That's why, Ibrahim says, he chose to record Tinariwen's fifth album there. It's even called Tassili, after a nearby mountain range. Ibrahim denies the rumours that Tinariwen were forced to record there because the presence of an Islamic fundamentalist militia affiliated to AQIM (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) 600 kilometres away in the far north-east of Mali, near Ibrahim's home village of Tessalit, made it too dangerous for non-Malian musicians and sound engineers working with the band to visit that area.

"I know the Djanet region very well and it's a very peaceful place," he says. "I spent lots of time in Djanet, going there as an ishumar. We always had to hide because we had no papers and we were looking for work. I remember lots of things, things that were hard. It was an adventure, you know…"

Last November, Ibrahim travelled to Djanet with five members of Tinariwen determined to nail down the simple acoustic sound and poetry of ishumar adventurers sitting around a campfire, sharing cigarettes, stories, songs and a guitar. This had always been the context in which Tinariwen's music was heard before they picked up electric guitars, added bass and percussion and went global. It was a return to core values and desert tranquillity that's bottled to perfection on Tassili.

They were later joined by American art house rockers Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, who arrived at Djanet from New York. The pair had met Tinariwen a few years earlier at the Coachella festival in California and their friendship matured with further meetings and a special collaboration at the Womad festival in Abu Dhabi in 2010.

They were picked up in a Toyota 4x4 Land Cruiser by Eyadou Ag Leche, Tinariwen's bassist, and driven through the Saharan night to the campsite-cum-bush recording studio. Eyadou spiced up the journey by travelling down the obscure dirt tracks without any headlights on, a freaky experience for any fresh arrival.

One of Ibrahim's greatest pleasures is showing strangers around his cherished desert homeland and he loved having TV on the Radio around for the recording. "Everything came naturally," he says. "When I found a tune or a pattern on the guitar, Kyp would find something that went with it. Or if he found something, Eyadou just followed him. It was great. They became friends very quickly. We didn't even have to talk that much."

Not talking much is fine by Ibrahim. A few words go a long way in the limpid calm of his African home. Fatigue and back pain prevent him from venturing out into the clamour and noise of New York, but he feels its brute and alien presence. "It's as if, for me, it's dirty here," he says. "That's what works here. My village is a completely different world."

Tinariwen's performance at the Highline Ballroom on the eve of their departure from New York is one of the best I've ever seen. It's a delight to discover that they've become sharper, nimbler, less reserved and more self-confident. Ibrahim smiles his shy, guileless smile only once during the whole show, as he bows after the last encore.

Earlier in the set, when he comes out with his acoustic guitar and starts to give a solo rendition of "Ikyadarh Dim" in his gentle, splintered croak, strange things happen. The brash hubbub of the hip New York crowd abates. A hush descends on the hall. The words of love float above the crowd like sparks from a fire ascending into a black desert night: "My lips fall silent, but my heart still speaks of you…" For a moment it almost feels as if Ibrahim has wiped away the dirt and tamed the city's frenzied heart.

To stream Tinariwen's new studio album Tassili go to guardian.co.uk/music on Monday

Andy Morgan

The GuardianTramp

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