Tablet Life & Arts

Tinariwen bring their sound of the Sahara to America

Many pop-music acts boast of the tough times they’ve encountered. A bad deal with a record company here, a nasty romantic break-up there, and unpleasant run-ins with paparazzi and the press.

But all of them can take a back seat to Tinariwen. The band, a rotating crew of members of the nomadic Tuareg people who inhabit Mali’s Sahara Desert, was hounded out of their country last year because of a civil war that had broken out between the government and the militant Islamist organization Ansar Dine. This group seeks to outlaw popular music and one of Tinariwen’s guitarists, Abdallah Ag Lamida, was briefly abducted. Tinariwen leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib took a break from music for awhile because of the political crisis.

Tinariwen — whose name means “deserts” in the Tamesheq language — were a target as they are one of the most well-known bands in a country celebrated globally for its bluesy, guitar-based grooves. The culture spawned such admired acts as Salif Keita, Amadou & Mariam, Ali Farka Toure and his son Vieux Farka Toure, and there was even an annual Woodstock of sorts for the music, Festival in the Desert, which attracted the likes of Robert Plant and Jimmy Buffett. But it hasn’t taken place in a couple of years because of the unrest.

Yet, to paraphrase the line from the old poem Invictus, Tinariwen were bloody but unbowed. Moving temporarily to Southern California, they hung out in another desert — Joshua Tree — and worked on their most accessible album yet, Emmaar, and the EP, Inside/Outside: The Joshua Tree Acoustic Sessions. Though there are a number of Western guests — Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, poet Saul Williams, Jack White engineer Vance Powell, fiddler Fats Kaplin — the sound remains distinctively Tinariwen: a hypnotic and hand-clapping cloud of jagged guitar, swirling melodies and call-across-the-desert vocals.

North Texans have a rare chance to experience Tinariwen on Nov. 6 when these guys — who wear traditional Tuareg garb — take the stage at the Granada as part of a fairly extensive North American tour. It’s something that shouldn’t be missed and, with luck, more people will show up than for the last time they came through the area in 2011 and played The Loft at South Side Music Hall before a sparse crowd.

The members of Tinariwen do not speak English and interview questions have to be emailed through their representatives and a translator. Unfortunately, considering their history, they aren’t very forthcoming, or at least that’s the sense conveyed by the translator. And it may mean nothing — or everything — but when asked if musicians are intimidated and fearful that Ansar Dine could return, there was no response.

With all the troubles in Mali and the rise of Ansar Dine in recent years, was there ever any thought of breaking up the group?

No, never.

When Ag Lamida was captured, did you fear that you might not see him again?


How did you decide on Southern California as a place to relocate and record Emmaar and Inside/Outside?

The situation was too dangerous for our crew to record in our desert, and we have a friend in Joshua Tree who invited us to record our album at his place. We like this kind of environment; it does inspire us.

Was it a culture shock living in California?

We only stayed in California for working: recording, playing.

How did being in California influence either the music or the lyrics? Did being there change your style?

No, our influences are in our own and ancestral culture, poetry, in our environment, the desert.

How did all the group’s recent struggles — Ag Lamida’s captivity, the rise of Ansar Dine — influence either the music or the lyrics?

It didn’t. Our songs are and have always been both influenced by poetry, love, nature and about the difficult situation for our people in the desert.

How would you compare the Joshua Tree desert to the North African desert?

Joshua Tree is much richer than our desert.

There are quite a few guest musicians on Emmaar — Josh Klinghoffer, Saul Williams, etc. What is the process for incorporating them into your sound?

We invite artists with whom we feel good vibes. We meet them at festivals most often.

The music of Mali often has been compared to American blues. Why do you think the music of Mali, as compared to other parts of Africa, has so many similarities to the blues?

Our music is called Assouf, which is our nostalgia, and yes it can be compared to American blues. The lyrics are about love, nomadism, the nature.

What is the situation in Mali regarding the group? Can you live and work there safely?

We live there but the situation remains complicated. There are thousands of Tuaregs that are still refugees.


8 p.m. Nov. 6

Granada Theater

3524 Greenville Ave.


$24-$40 advance, $29-$44 at the door

214 824-9933;