Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Dec 18th 2007 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
That's Eyadou Ag Leche, bass player for the band Tinariwen, translated by the Saharan group's manager, Andy Morgan. He could very well be glibly summing up the life of the Touareg, the nomadic culture to which the band and its bracing music belong.
But what he's referring to is the Tinariwen mission, an intertwined course to raise global awareness of the Touareg (or Tuareg, as it is sometimes spelled). Before Tinariwen came along a few years ago, even many passionate international music fans had never even heard the word "Touareg" outside of it being used for the name of a Volkswagen model. Today, at least in some circles, Touareg is known as a vital, oft-oppressed "people without a country," right alongside the Roma and the Kurds. And inarguably,Tinariwen have had a lot to do with that. With its third album, 'Aman Iman: Water is Life,' released in 2007, the group solidified its status as one of the global-music sensations of recent years, the most prominent ambassador of Touareg culture to the world, and a force of pride and political progress for its people at home.
It's pretty much impossible to name one single act or even an album of 2007 as the most significant for whatever we call the music covered in Around the World. But it's hard to argue that for this year -- and several years now -- Tinariwen stand out, for both musical and nonmusical achievements.
For 2008, the band seems set to take a step off the global stage and reassess its course. For one thing, plans for the year's edition of the Saharan Nights festival, a music and culture conclave geared for a nomad audience -- to have been hosted by the group against a stunning backdrop of the Terharhar mountains near the ruins of the ancient city of Essouk from Jan. 17 to 19 -- have been canceled due to political strife and Touareg rebellions in the Mali-Niger region. More than that, though, the musicians are wondering if after the rise to prominence it's simply time for a fresh approach.
"People are getting to know Tinariwen and Touareg," says Ag Leche. "But it's not enough. The message is going out, but it's never enough. Always more work to do."
Morgan elaborates, "The first steps are being made, people now know that there is a culture called the Touareg, and they live in the desert, and the desert isn't just an empty wasteland. That's the first step. After that, there's a lot of nuance in the message to get out." The most important work at the moment, though, is at home. "We have to focus on ourselves and not just deliver what people imagine we are," he says.
That was to have been the point of the 2008 Saharan Nights. Unlike the Festival of the Desert elsewhere in Mali, which has drawn an increasing number of European and American music fans, Saharan Nights has been intended specifically for a Touareg audience. "That's the idea," Morgan says. "To have a festival that the nomads want to see."
More than that, it's meant to serve as a platform for cultural exchange and support among nomad communities, a setting for consciousness and activism: "Three days of music, dancing, camel racing, poetry and debate," per official materials promoting past festivals.
"It started, I believe, in 2004 and was run by some people in Kidal, some community leaders for the first year or two," Morgan says. "Then it was taken over by an association that Tinariwen has created, Taghredt Tinariwen. The idea is to use the festival as a focal point for exchange, for bringing people of the desert together. We're thinking of it as a way to reorient what we do more to the desert rather than the concert halls of Europe."
The cancellation, to some extent, points to the needs to devote attention at home, but it also gives the band a chance to breathe and really give thought to new strategies. "The situation has been quite unstable the last four or five months," Morgan explains. "So we really want to focus on 2009 now. In a way, it's not such a bad thing. There's a lot to do and Tinariwen has had a really busy year, so it would have been a lot to do that this year as well."
Even with another year to plan, though, they don't look to make it grow too much in scope. Morgan does hope to bring in some artists from outside of the Sahara region but only ones that are true to the audience and the circumstances.
"Like everyone in the world, the nomads want to see music from elsewhere," he says. "But bands that play must be of a certain mindset. They can't treat it as a regular gig. The locals who play will be everything from very, very traditional poetry to modern guitar music, but for the bands that come from elsewhere, it's a matter of which ones express a real enthusiasm. We can't pay bands to come from Australia or somewhere. Best we can do is look after them and feed them. A lot of people want to jump at the opportunity. It's quite difficult but a fantastic experience, really unforgettable."
So 2008 may be a less visible year for the group, but perhaps it's not to early to name it a candidate for the most significant of 2009 -- despite, or maybe because, of the fact that they don't seem poised to be satisfied with whatever is achieved. As Morgan reiterates, "You never feel you've really done enough."