They count U2 among their fans, but they couldn’t be less like Bono’s crew if they tried. Founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib tells Jon Wilks about Tinariwen’s hard past.
You probably haven’t heard of Tinariwen. Don’t worry. You soon will. They’ve already become the band to name-drop (Bono: ‘This kind of music is like a breath that I can feel;’ Thom Yorke: ‘I copied their style’), and industry bods are touting them as one of modern music’s most influential outfits.
However, their story begins not in the boardrooms of record companies, but in 1960s Sahara. Africa had just won its independence, but that victory took its toll on the nomadic Touareg people of the northern desert region. Unable to reconcile themselves with the new Malian government, they found themselves persecuted and violently suppressed. It’s a memory that haunts the Touareg still, and provides a catalyst to the Tinariwen tale.
‘When I was three or four years old, the Malian army came to take my father,’ says Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the band’s founding member and lead singer. ‘They killed all our animals, but my family didn’t want to tell me what happened to my father. It was from the other children that I learned of the tragedy. From that moment, I was angry.’
Growing up in the itinerant refugee camps, Ibrahim, like many rebels the world over, found respite from his anger by playing traditional Touareg music – and soon other refugees joined in. ‘Our situation was lamentable,’ he says.
‘In exile we were wandering, not knowing where to go or what we could do. Playing together gave us motivation and enthusiasm to explain the reality of our people.’ Ibrahim eventually bought a guitar – an instrument he’d coveted since he saw one as a child in a long-forgotten cowboy movie – and fell in with a gang of similarly minded Touareg music junkies. They began playing an improvised fusion of Elvis, chaabi protest songs, Dire Straits and Algerian raï that, he says, helped them face up to the hardships of life. By 1980, they’d drifted into Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi’s new desert training camps promised them freedom by force. But as they came to the miserable realisation that Gaddafi was using them to consolidate his own power, Tinariwen’s desert blues gave voice to the Touareg’s disillusion.
Scratchy bootlegs passed from hand to hand, gaining the band European gigs in the early ’90s that helped them to strengthen their position abroad. But the band continue to give something back. ‘The shows we do in the desert, and the rehearsals for our album – these are good moments that help to give jobs around each activity.’
Before we depart, we’re keen to tackle that blues question. Carlos Santana has said that by performing Touareg traditional folk music, Tinariwen represent the sound that gave birth to the genre (‘Muddy Waters, BB King, Little Walter… this is where it all comes from… [Tinariwen] are the originators’). It’s quite a mantle to bear, so how does Ibrahim feel about carrying it? ‘The origins are different,’ he muses, ‘but the notes and the blue colours are the same. We are singing about life, the great game of poesy. We are speaking of the truth from and at our eyes… the mode of nomadic life from the Tamashek people we love.’ Unless we’re much mistaken, it sounds like them ol’ walkin’ blues again.
Tinariwen play Stage North with TV on the Radio, Saturday 24, 9.10pm.
The son of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, Femi brings driving beats and political conscience to the Womad stage. He tells Time Out about his struggle.
The relationship you have with your father’s music has been described as both a blessing and a curse. Is that fair?
It depends on what the person is talking about. I don’t have a problem with being the son of a famous musician. I just saw a man I loved. My father was a great man. His music still has a great impact on the world today, and he was on a mission. He was fighting for the emancipation of the black man, he was fighting against corruption. I’m a very strict follower of his philosophy.
And you’re continuing the struggle all these years later…
After 40 years, yes. I’m very sad, very depressed. It’s a big shame. Not much has changed. After all these years, we still address these same issues.
How will your message translate to an Abu Dhabi audience?
It’s my first time in the Middle East. I think the first thing that’s important is to see how Abu Dhabi is using its oil for the people of Abu Dhabi, and how the corruption in Africa takes our oil money away – it’s not invested in our people. So now it’s exposing our corruption to the people of the Middle East; letting them see our side of the world.
Is everything you do politically motivated?
Yes, 99 per cent of everything I do is political. Politics affect everybody, and the decisions our leaders make affect our lives whether we like it or not. If I’m not on the case, fighting corruption, that means I don’t care about my children or my wife. I do care, so it has to be.
Are you ever tempted to leave Lagos?
I’m not tempted, but I’m angry sometimes. I ask questions: what am I doing? I know the answers. I’m fighting. If I was in America or Europe, I could not do my job singing about the problems in Africa. If I’m there, I’d have to sing about the problems I’m confronting there. Now, why would I want to leave my home to complain about someone else’s problems? If you are really a fighter, you have to be on the battlefield, not fighting from outside.
Jon Wilks. Femi Kuti plays Stage South, Thursday 22, 11.35pm.
Womad to-do list
Our pick of the festival’s main events. Words Jon Wilks.
Catch the procession as they make their way from the beach to the stage, culminating in an energetic performance that wouldn’t look out of place at an acrobatics competition.
The Drummers of Burundi Stage North, 7.15pm.
These throaty fellows from Beijing specialise in Mongolian folk, but cite influences including Pink Floyd, Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine. It doesn’t get more worldy than that.
Stage South, 8.20pm.
Nothing like a bit of easy-going ska to get a festival hopping. This 10-piece outfit from Lyon, France, will be bringing the late-night happy.
Stage North, 10.40pm.
It’s not every day that the son of a genuine legend turns out to be a genuine legend himself, but the current king of Afrobeat (and son of Fela Kuti) isn’t an everyday artist.
Stage South, 11.35pm.
What Sudanese band Rango don’t know about the marimba probably ain’t worth knowing.
Stage South, 7.15pm.
This UAE-formed funk and ska outfit are already familiar to Time Out readers. Now living in London, they’ll be keen to rock the home crowd.
Stage North, 8.20pm.
Anyone who enjoyed the Dhol Foundation’s performance at last year’s festival will be pleased to know that their paths have crossed with this band of London producers.
Stage North, 10.10pm.
This Cuban outfit, not dissimilar to Buena Vista Social Club, have been in the business since 1976, meaning they’ve got the chops when it comes to making you twitch.
Stage South, 11.05pm.
A slide guitarist with a difference – about 18 strings’ worth. Debashish is a bona-fide genius who invented and mastered his 24-string instrument. This is a relaxed way to kick off the final evening.
Debashish Bhattacharya Stage South, 6.30pm.
A Cape Verdean vocalist who sings in an enchanting, jazzy, almost bossa nova style. Voted Best Newcomer at the BBC World Music Awards 2008.
Stage South, 8.20pm.
Tinariwen are the current darlings of world music, and Time Out, for one, can’t wait for their performance in the capital. They’ll be doing a special collaboration with Algerian musician Mehdi Haddab and members of
New York genre-hoppers TV on the Radio. Not to be missed.
Stage North, 9.10pm.
Damian ‘Junior Gong’ Marley
Damian is a reggae musician, the youngest son of Bob Marley and the owner of some of the longest dreadlocks in creation. Need we say more?
Stage North, 11.10pm.
The rest of the CD
Here are the remainder of the acts featured on Time Out’s free Womad CD.
This French-Algerian combines rock, techno and Moroccan raï.
Stage North, Friday 23, 12.10am
‘Hoja en Blanco’
Latin-influenced reggae-rock from Spain.
Stage North, Saturday 24, 7.10pm.
Le Trio Joubran
Oud music from three Palestinian brothers.
Stage North, Thursday 22, 9.05pm.
Faiz Ali Faiz & Titi Robin
‘Chambe di Booti’
Faiz is an acclaimed Pakistani qawwali singer; Titi is a French gypsy musician.
Stage South, Thursday 22, 9.50pm.
An award-winning young Cuban singer/songwriter.
Stage South, Saturday 24, 8.20pm.
Musafir Gypsies of Rajasthan
This gypsy tribe combine the best of India’s musical genres.
Al Ain Desert Cultures Stage, Thursday 22 and Friday 23, 9.30pm
The Zawose Family
‘Song Mbele (Push Ahead)’
This family plays the music of the Wagogo people of Tanzania.
School performances only.
The !Gubi Family
Musicians aged from 18 to 80 play music from Namibia.
Al Ain Desert Cultures Stage, Thursday 22, 8.10pm.