Imarhan Timbuktu and Tinariwen Talk Malian Desert Music and Western Pop
Tonight, Malian desert band Imarhan Timbuktu performs at Bossa and on Saturday Tinariwen, the well-known Saharan desert combo, plays Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. While the appearance of guitar-toting Tuareg musicians with long, flowing robes and oft-covered faces isn't quite a novelty in D.C. anymore, thanks to a number of such groups touring here in recent years, it’s still far from mundane. Imarhan Timbuktu is visiting in support of its debut effort Akal Warled, while Tinariwen is promoting its February release Emmaar. I exchanged emails with Imarhan Timbuktu guitarist Mohamed Issa Ag Oumar and Tinariwen bassist Ayedou Ag Leche. Their answers were translated from Tamashek and French.
Four-piece family band Imarhan Timbuktu features two brothers on guitar and lead vocals and two sisters on percussion and backing vocals. They also play together in the group Tartit, in which the women are the lead vocalists. One of the sisters, Fadimata Walet Oumar, was in a recent car accident and will not perform in D.C. with her siblings.
Mohamed Issa Ag Oumar is the group’s songwriter and his droning, North African guitar rhythms and chanted vocals dominate its sound. He never took professional guitar lessons on the instrument. “One of my uncles gave me my first guitar,” he says. “I learned to play by just picking it up and practicing.” While his playing on the album seems slow and traditional, Ag Oumar insists “the music has evolved to be more modern and upbeat.” In addition to listening to Tamashek music like Tinariwen, Tamikrest, and Bombino, he says he also listens to Phil Collins, Michael Jackson, and Celine Dion.
Lyrically, much of the album has a melancholy feel to it. Although Islamic fundamentalists are no longer in charge in northern Mali, not all of the Tuaregs have returned; this loss has had an apparent impact on the songs. The album was recorded over two days in a studio in Saugerties, N.Y. Explaining the words of two compositions on the album, Ag Oumar says “'Amassakoul in Tenere' is about a desert journey, about nostalgia for the desert. It is about our home and how important the desert is to our culture. ‘Akal Warled’ is about having left our homes and the difficulties of being a refugee. My family is currently in M'Bera in Mauritania. Touring North America is a dramatic contrast to where we live but we prefer being at home.”
Tinariwen’s latest album, its sixth, was the first recorded outside of their home region. Created in a home studio near California’s Joshua Tree National Park, it also features droning guitar and sing-song vocals about its members' plight, though this larger group’s sound is slightly different from Imarhan. Bassist Eyadou Ag Leche says that when not on the road or recording together, the musicians live far apart. “Some of us are staying in Tamarasset, South Algeria, others are around Tessalit, Northern Mali, and one of us travels around South Algeria, Northern Mali, Niger, and Mauritania,” he explains. Influenced by a variety of styles, including traditional north Malian music, American blues, and Jimi Hendrix, the Grammy-winning group has played a prominent role in establishing the Tuareg desert sound. As for Tinariwen’s lyrics, Leche explains “our music is mostly inspired by ancestral Tamashek poetry, which is about our desert, and about love, feelings, nature, animals... Our lyrics are both inspired by these old poetries and also by the current situation in Mali and the difficult times for our Tuareg community, the exile, the suffering, and a call to get the rights of our people respected.”
Leche likes the sound that they created in California. “We had great gear to record with! Also it was important for us to record in a desert, we get inspired by the deserts, it's part of us. Tinariwen means 'the deserts' in our language, Tamasheq. We need to feel the natural elements of it...air, silence, rocks, sand.” Guests on this new LP include Josh Klinghoffer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Matt Sweeney from Chavez. How did the African desert dwellers meet these American rock musicians? “We like meeting other musicians while touring. We like jamming, and sometimes great things happen,” Leche says. “We met Josh at a festival in L.A. in 2011, he joined us with Flea, it was a great honor and since that time we supported some shows of Red Hot Chili Peppers. Josh is a great guitarist. Matt is wonderful too, and we have great artistic connections with him.”
Imarhan Timbuktu performs tonight, March 19th at 9 p.m. at Bossa Bistro, 2463 18th St NW. $5. Tinariwen appears with The Melodic Saturday March 22 at 8 p.m. at 6th & I Synagogue, 600 I St. NW. $25.