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Published: 2013/05/13
by Glenn H. Roth

Never Surrender: Tinariwen Keeps Making Music

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib never lost hope. His rooted connection to music and mother nature helped him survive when there was no place he could call home.

An uprising in Northern Mali forced Ibrahim from his home and into the vast Saharan desert. He would later meet other young men, who shared his passion, at refugee camps in bordering Algeria and Libya.

Ibrahim’s music career began in these refugee camps, and in the early 1980s, he founded Tinariwen, a collective of African singers, songwriters, and musicians.

After many years of playing music to survive, Tinariwen’s 2011 release Tassili won the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album.

Ibrahim, who speaks French, participated in an email interview, with help from his manager Marion Chapdelaine, to tell about his journey, culture and musical influences.

How did you manage to survive when you spent a decade wandering in the desert?

Farming, gardening, and solidarity, which is part of our community’s cultural way of life. And, of course, the music, at celebrations and shows.

Can you elaborate on how music aided your survival?

Music is indeed my favorite activity, both for my spirit and for staying awake which is essential to live through the hard times. Music is also important for togetherness and it helps us a lot to express and push out the various sufferings we are all facing.

Many people are not familiar with the Tamashek people, what should people know about your culture?

We are Tamashek people – pastoral nomads – very attached to freedom.

In 1979, you got your first acoustic guitar, how did you know that music would be your calling?

I enjoyed so much playing with my first guitar. I was not looking to make it my job. In the Tamashek culture, music is only a pleasure, not a job.

Your music has been described as Sahara Blues or Desert Rock, can you elaborate?

Our music style is called Assouf and is often likened to blues, maybe because of the words and the feelings the music procures, nostalgia and melancholia. Desert rockers. Maybe because our band is all about rock? We aren’t only a folkloric band or a world music band with no pretenses.

How did the origination of Tinariwen come about?

In the 80’s while we were young adults in exile, seeking for our identity and for activity, the guitar became quickly very popular. It became the expression of the young people: the guitars accompanied the poetry and the rhythms were inspired by our traditions.

Many musicians have come and gone from the band. What kind of impact has that had on the band and keeping the music alive?

All the musicians playing in Tinariwen during these 30 past years have enriched the experience and have highlighted our guitars’ playing approach. The band playing the tour is more or less always the same core.

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