Tinariwen: Music's True Rebels In the '80s, the Tuareg people of West Africa rebelled against Mali. The struggle has been violent, but one group put down its weapons to combine traditional music with electric guitars. Hear an interview with one of Tinariwen's guitarists and singers.

Tinariwen: Music's True Rebels

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Tom Lehrer used to say ready, aim, sing. So does a group called Tinariwen. The Tuareg people of West Africa are descendants of nomads who traveled in caravans along the Sahara. They've also been fighting for an independent homeland for decades. And in the 1980s, the Tuareg rebelled against the nation of Mali. Their struggle has often been violent and bitter, but a group of musicians has emerged out of the rebellion.

The members of Tinariwen, which translates as open spaces, put down their weapons to combine traditional musical styles with blazing electric guitars.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Earlier this year, Tinariwen released its third album, "Aman Iman." It's an album of blues and African percussion and poetry, creating a sound that's all their own and distinctive. They're currently touring the United States.

And we're joined in the studio by Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni who's one of the singers and guitarists in the group. Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. ABDALLAH AG ALHOUSSEYNI (Singer and Guitarist, Tinariwen): You're welcome.

SIMON: And we're also joined - our interpreter is Banning Eyre, who's musical commentator for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Thank you for being with us.

BANNING EYRE: Thank you. Great to be here.

SIMON: Tell us, how did you discover music?

EYRE: (French spoken)

Mr. ALHOUSSEYNI: (French spoken)

EYRE: My discovery of music was a little bit complicated because I grew up in the desert; there were no towns close by. And it wasn't until 1982 when I went to Algeria that I heard the music of Tinariwen, which already existed, and of the Malan guitarist Ali Farka Toure, and I discovered the larger Tuareg family. And it was the first time I had heard Tamasheq voices singing with guitars because at home, we didn't have those kinds of instruments. We just had the flute and the tom-tom drum. And, for me, to hear the guitar and those voices singing together was very moving; very beautiful.

SIMON: You blend, as we mentioned, the traditional drumming and vocals with sometimes very powerful electric guitars. How do you combine them?

Mr. ALHOUSSEYNI: (French spoken)

EYRE: It's true that we do not have electric guitars in our traditional life, but this group was coming up in the context of the rebellion - the Tuareg rebellion. And one of the goals of the rebellion was to bring modern things to the desert to upgrade our lives. So the electric guitar was one of those things that we could bring. It's true that my background was in traditional music, traditional singing, but we found that there was a very natural fit with the guitar and our way of traditional singing that was just very beautiful and very pleasing.

SIMON: Let's listen to one of your songs, "Tamatant Tilay."

(Soundbite of song, "Tamatant Tilay")

TINARIWEN (Band): (Singing in Tamasheq)

SIMON: Now, you hear that guitar working there - It maybe wouldn't be surprising to know that you've performed with Carlos Santana and opened for the Rolling Stones.

Mr. ALHOUSSEYNI: (French spoken)

EYRE: In our generation, people love the guitar. Even people who are not musicians, I noticed that they have a tremendous love of the guitar. And so any music that brings the guitar forward as the principal sound is naturally appealing to us. So, of course, we'd love Santana, we loved Hendrix, all of that sort of music, because it brought the guitar to the forefront.

(Soundbite of song, "Tamatant Tilay")

TINARIWEN: (Singing in Tamasheq)

SIMON: Do you have any idea how the Tuareg regard your music? Do they know what successes you've become?

Mr. ALHOUSSEYNI: (French spoken)

EYRE: Yes, the Tinariwen is a group that is very closely followed by the Tuareg community. People within this community follow their musicians and they follow events in the world, and so they have paid very close attention from the very beginning - the first time we toured right up to the present to everything that happens with us.

(Soundbite of song, "Toumast")

SIMON: Another one of your songs we'd like to listen to. This one a little bit more melancholy, this song "Toumast."

(Soundbite of song, "Toumast")

TINARIWEN: (Singing in Tamasheq)

SIMON: Can you help us understand what the song is about?

Mr. ALHOUSSEYNI: (French spoken)

EYRE: This is a song that talks about the community, the people, the Tuareg people, and particularly in the context of this moment of the rebellion when there was terrible separation and division among us - political and also just spatial division. So we say that a people who are separated can never bring forth from the earth a tree that produces beautiful flowers.

(Soundbite of song, "Toumast")

SIMON: Do you see your music as still being a part of the Tuareg rebellion?

Mr. ALHOUSSEYNI: (French spoken)

EYRE: In my opinion, the music of Tinariwen will always be associated with the rebellion because it was created in the milieu of rebellion. The songs of Tinariwen were created by many people, including people who are not musicians, who are fighters in the rebellion who contributed lyrics and ideas and inspiration. So, for us, it will always have that connection. Maybe some future generation will change and bring the music into other realms, but I think it will always have that identity.

SIMON: I know you're a musician, not a politician, but I guess I feel the need to ask you why an independent homeland is important to the Tuareg.

Mr. ALHOUSSEYNI: (French spoken)

EYRE: Myself, as you say, I'm not a politician. We are artists and yet we live in a time where the Tuareg can't really make these separations as clearly as that. We have - we can't specialize and just be one thing. We have to be artists, politicians, nomads, businessmen - everything. It's not necessarily that we have to have our own homeland, but we need to have a particular situation. We don't want to just blend into the general population. And when I say a special situation, what I mean is that our culture is very distinct and it must be able to preserve its distinct identity. That's really the important thing.

SIMON: We want to go out on a song "Matadjem Yinmexan." But before we play that, what is this song saying? What's the message?

Mr. ALHOUSSEYNI: (French spoken)

EYRE: This song is a little bit like the song "Toumast" in that it talks about the community - the Tuareg community. And among us, there are people who have different tendencies and who focus on separations within the community. And so this song asked: Why is there so much hate between us? And are we going to teach this hate to our children and pass this separation on to the next generation? And why do we have to do this? That's the question that this song is asking.

SIMON: Let's listen please.

(Soundbite of song, "Matadjem Yinmexan")

TINARIWEN: (Singing in Tamasheq)

SIMON: Thank you so much for being with us.

Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni is a guitarist and singer in the group Tinariwen. Their latest album is called "Aman Iman: Water is Life." We also want to thank our interpreter Banning Eyre.

(Soundbite of song, "Matadjem Yinmexan")

SIMON: And you can hear some of their full songs and discover more great music at our new music site, npr.org/music, where you'll also find interviews, streaming concerts, but, I guess, that's a waterfall of concerts and many other features.

(Soundbite of song, "Matadjem Yinmexan")

TINARIWEN: (Singing in Tamasheq)

SIMON: I'm Scott Simon.

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