Tinariwen chat Desert Blues, the Sahara and music as protest

February 15th 2018

Photo by Marie Planeille

Ahead of their Australian shows in March, FBi Radio spoke to Tuareg band, Tinariwen, about music as protest, their latest record Elwan, and their upcoming tour.

Renowned worldwide for their incredible musicianship and powerful rebellion, Tinariwen are a Tuareg band who have been making music since 1979. Formed as a collective around Saharan campfires by young musicians on a mission, their aim was to preserve tradition in the face of modern challenges. Over the course of eight albums, countless world tours and influencing the likes of Thom York and TV On The Radio, they’ve become kings of the Desert Blues genre.


We’re really excited that you’re coming to Australia — the last time you were here was a good few years ago. Do any memories from that run of shows come to mind for you?

It’s been six years since we’ve been to Australia, we were there for the Womad in Adelaide and New Zealand. Australia is so far away from where we live, it is always like being in another world. Last time we met Aboriginal tribes and we spent some time with them, it was great to meet people who encounter the same issues as our people in the Sahara.


A big congratulations on your beautiful seventh record Elwan, and also happy birthday to it – it’s almost exactly one year old! The album title translates to ‘the elephant’ in English. What inspired this title?

Thanks! The title of the album Elwan is a metaphor about the powerful administration/corporation/religious extremists in our world who crush everything under their steps to get more power and who leave the middle class and poor people on the side.


You recorded most of Elwan in a Moroccan oasis — what led to the decision to record here? 

When we record, we always look for places where we can find a connection with nature and in particular with the desert. The desert is the place we grew up and live and the wind, the sand and the birds inspire us. Unfortunately, the Sahara area is less and less safe for foreign people, when we were looking for a place to record, we were offered to come to the Moroccan desert around Ouarzazate in a small Oasis close to the village Taragalte. It was a great place to stay and to record.


How do you think this recording location shaped Elwan’s sound?

We were in a desert but far from our home. This recording is a mix of a nostalgic feeling because we couldn’t record at home which meant we were inspired by the traditional musicians from the area who we could record with. The Gnawas, the children from the village, the local percussionists.


Tinariwen have always made political and topical music that draws from the ongoing political struggles in your homeland, yet also seems to transcend geography, and Elwan is exceptionally resonant in today’s global political landscape. Reflecting this, did writing this record feel different in any way, this time around?

This time was kind of special because we were in the middle of a peace protest and we were all hoping that the situation in our land would be better. Unfortunately, at that time the situation was still the same, so our lyrics were a mix of hope and pessimism, joy and tears.


The record has been incredibly critically well received all over the world – again, congratulations. How has it been performing the new songs live?

It has been great! We hired a new Algerian percussionist for some tours which brings a lot in the live performance. Unfortunately, he will not be there in Australia this time. We try to present a show where the dancey songs were more dancey and the sad songs sadder.


I’ve read in other interviews you’ve done that music is integral to the everyday in Taureg culture. Is there much of a tradition of music as a form of protest, too?

At the beginning, traditional Tuareg music was sung by the women (the tinde), and the lyrics were about the story of the families, of everyday life. When Tinariwen started writing poetry in the beginning of the 80s the political situation was tough. There was already Tuareg rebellions, some of our people were fighting and dying, so our lyrics were talking about that and it became political.


What’s next for Tinariwen’s year ahead, following your festival and sideshow appearances in Australia?

We will tour the USA and Canada next summer then we will start the process of a new recording.



Tinariwen play the Factory Theatre, Marrickville on March 15. If you’re an FBi Supporter, you could be heading along on us! Win tickets.


Host of Monday Arvos, 3–5:30pm on FBi Radio 94.5FM.

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