My first encounter with Tinariwen dates back quite a while. It was at London Barbican, in June 2004. They played a special concert I will not forget.
American blues (and beyond) legend, Taj Mahal, on one of his rare UK appearances, shared the stage with the Tuareg ensemble of Tinariwen, from Mali.
These group of people met in a Lybian rebel military camp of Colonel Gheddafi. Once they managed to get out of the oppression, instead of rebelling with the AK47 they learnt to use, opted for electric guitars. A contemporary revise of Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” into “This Machine Kills Oppression”.
Since their beginning, Tinariwen had a double aim. To bring the blues back into Africa and the Tuareg question outside Africa. Almost ten years on, packing venues throughout the world, their mission is accomplished but not ended.
As usually happens, right timing is key of success. Those early years of the decade were seeing the peak of an original blues revival that questioned, revised and investigated the roots of black Americans music.
It sprang from the buzz created by the wonderful “The Blues” series. Seven films shot by seven master directors about the history of blues.
It was curated by Martin Scorsese and Scorsese himself signed the first episode. “Feel Like Going Home” is a brilliant document that depicts the journey back to Mali, West Africa, of a young American bluesman in search of the origin of the music of his ancestors. A film about brotherhood between two continents, about the ancestral bond between black people both sides of the Atlantic. An archetype who dates few centuries back, to the slave trade.
It is not an original thesis but for the first time it is shot from the African perspective. It puts Africa at the centre. It gives to Africa, not to the Americans who arrived from Africa, the credits.
Scorsese didn’t meet Tinariwen but met Ali Farka Touré, likely the symbol of the modern connection between American and African blues. His Talking Timbuctu, Touré album with the other master of (and beyond) American music roots, Ry Cooder, still is one of the best example of Africa-meets-West folk music.
Tinariwen pushed the link between Africa and blues further.
They don’t use traditional string instruments, they don’t use a lot of acoustic guitars either. Tinariwen use electric guitars, Gibson, Fender, Marshall. The ensemble is still plenty of African percussions, the rhythmic of their music is where the connection with Africa root is at its strongest but the music is louder. They rock, as to reach out as many people as possible out there. There is pride not submission.
Their operation is tangible. Audience can’t ignore it.
For the first time, it is not western music stealing ideas from African traditions, as it has been since Jazz started over a century ago. Tinariwen are Africans who are not shy to get their inspiration from western music. More, they use it as a Trojan horse to get their message into western world.
It is a political as well as an artistic operation.
It is an uprising of a group of people representing a continent. Tinariwen are telling Africans first, rest of the world second, that they are aware and self-confident to claim their right to be part of this world. To exist beyond the friendly post-colonial attitude that Europe gives to Africans. Exist at the same level, to the point of using western music for an African purpose.
Tinariwen mostly sing in African. Their revolutionary spirit still wants to reach their brothers, wants to inject the seed of rebellion. They use the violence of music in the place of the violence of weapons. It’s a very important point. Not-violent does not always mean peaceful.
That is why their first two albums, 2001’s The Radio Tisdas Sessions and 2004’s Amassakoul spread illegally in Africa but where banned by Algerian and Malian governments.
Political topics as repression, exile, violence, sang through western instruments with a rock infused beat to shake the intimidated tribes living through Ténéré desert was too much to tolerate for such repressive governments.
Thankfully the power of music has the strength to go beyond frontiers. These two recordings arrived to France and from there spread anywhere the world is free.
Tinariwen music bloomed throughout Europe supported by the hundreds of gigs they have been playing relentlessly since.
A Tinariwen concert does not look like a band doing its job but looks like a group on a political mission.
On stage they look almost intimidating. They give no concession, it is not a theatrical show, no reassurance. You feel the pain of a people and they want you to share that pain.
Dressed in traditional Berber clothing, Tuareg is a matriarchal society where men and not women wear the veil, most of the members are hidden behind their symbolic turban: the tagelmust. It’s not a show, it’s their uniforms.
Guitars are held as Kalashnikovs and burst notes up and down minor pentatonic scales. Their chords meet the blues more often than you can think and even if there is neither the classic blues progression, not the 12 bar rigid blues structure, Lightning Hopkins soul, John Lee Hooker ghost can be perceived.
Tinariwen use western influences to arrive straight to the heart of the listener. Anyone who came across pure African rhythms and harmonies know that isn’t easy to grasp on those for long. Not for me, at least.
I love African music in an African setting or for a short while but I struggle to listen to an entire traditional African record from start to end.
As a counterpart I can listen to the entire Tinariwen discography in a row.The secret of their success is the clever mix of sounds that makes this possible.
The ability and the courage to be inspired by western music. It act as a caravan in the desert, songs walk faster to the destination, spreading the message, reaching people’s hearts beyond the dunes.
Following Amassakoul, Tinariwen fame exploded.
Aman Iman – Water is Life , their third album, was received with growing enthusiast. It follows on the same path of mixing Malian traditions, they recorded it in Bamako. It sings about african life in a touching, poetic way, but expands its musical influences beyond the blues. The collective isn’t shy to explore a rockier sound.
For this London Koko show Tinariwen are touring their latest effort: Imidiwan – Companions.
Their fourth album doesn’t move too much from the start but every album adds bits to their musical palette. If the blues of the beginning moved towards rock, here the band seems to spice up their southern Sahara music taking inspiration from North African, mediterranean countries.
The record vibrates as an Algerian souk. On stage tonight radiant colours of spices are everywhere, the smell of the food from market stalls seems to emerge from the speakers. You almost see people trading, chatting, meeting.
It sounds strident to infuse a London rock venue, on a cold autumn night under an even colder air conditioning system with the sundried songs generated in the boiling hot Bamako. It is not.
As nowadays it is considered perfectly normal that hot jazz is being played in Scandinavia or country Blues in Paris.
The prejudice is the western prejudice to reject Africa as part of this world. To accept it only as a folk/anthropological entity to be seen as exotic, interesting but detached from our culture.
It’s an old, out of times position. Something belonging to the past century. Thanks also to Tinariwen this attitude is challenged and changed.
Tinariwen brought Africa, not only its music, in the third millennium. They fight using songs and they are proving effective to win the war.
People stopped questioning. We are listening to African music played at London Koko on a rock stage with rock instruments and it’s OK. No one is after useless exotic decorations, everyone is transported by the music.
As always happens art goes beyond borders, foresee the future, indicate the direction.
It has never been Bob Geldof or Bono hypocrisy to achieve this, it won’t be a thousands Live Aid or Live Eight to help Africa.
It is African bands as Tinariwen, working hard to the point of risking their life, that brings Africa to the attention of the world. Globalization doesn’t mean Americans trading in Nigeria, that’s Imperialism. Globalization means African musicians playing their music in America and England, singing about African issues to a white audience.
This is something between travel photography and concert photography, isn’t it?
Traditional costumes in their not traditional environment are not an easy task.
Photographing a Tuareg next to his camel under a palm on a desert oasis, may sound like a postcard but fills the comfortable imagery we have of this, it doesn’t sound out of place.
Shooting a Tuareg in front of black amplifiers in a odd mix of rock instruments, white turbans and exotic accessories is not the same thing, but that’s the challenge.
There are two ways to go.
One is to subtract the oddity, focusing on the details and ignoring the disturbing elements. Doing this you are photographing the place of origin of the subject.
You can obtain this stepping closer and using a medium/long telephoto wide open in order to minimize eveerything else but the focus. Concentrate on small details, the interesting bit of traditional instruments but also the hands or the eyes of the musicians.
Another is to emphasize the oddity. Which is more challenging but helps the “mission” of integrating cutures instead of keeping them apart.
Trying to find the balance between the stage and the stage presence isn’t easy. You are not emphasizing the subject (the artist) but the location (where the artist is).
The place where such a band is playing, the instruments you wouldn’t expect such musicians to play.
Photos have to highlight the difference, to transmit to the viewer a discordant message that triggers the curiosity and makes the unusual acceptable. Push the barrier of common sense beyond expectations.
As always in photography some images come out spontaneously some other struggle even when you are convinced to have nailed it. Don’t despair, it’s all about experience… and getting closer. Feel it.