Music Interview: TINARIWEN (part of the MusicNOW Festival in Cincinnati)

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by Sarah Taylor Ellis on April 9, 2013

in Interviews,Tours


The MusicNOW Festival will present a dynamic lineup of new music at Cincinnati’s Memorial Hall from April 12 – 14, 2013. Founded in 2006 by Bryce Dessner of the indie rock band The National, the festival hosts contemporary musicians who defy the traditional boundaries of genre. The festival fosters world premiere works and unexpected collaborations among artistic luminaries of the contemporary classical, popular, and world music scenes.

Sarah Taylor Ellis had a few questions for Tinariwen, a band which is part of the opening night MusicNOW lineup. Stage and Cinema would like to thank Ibrahim Ag Alhabib for his responses and Tinariwen’s manager, Marion Chapdelaine, for the translations.

Sarah Taylor Ellis' Stage and Cinema interview with Tinariwen, MusicNOW Festival, Cincinatti 2103

Tinariwen was formed in Mali by young Touareg soldiers in the early 1990s. The original members met in a military training camp just before the 1990-1995 Touareg rebellion. While fighting across the southern Sahara, Tinariwen wielded both guns and guitars; they recorded and distributed music on cassette tapes passed from friend to friend.

As lead guitarist and vocalist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib explains, the electric guitar created a particular sensation among the Touareg rebels: “Perhaps it is because of the symbol of modernity it implies and the feeling of being part of this modern world.” The use of the popular instrument also provides “the opportunity of being heard by many different people.” Through a sonic juxtaposition of traditional instruments and amplified rock, Tinariwen strove to promote the rights of nomadic peoples while rebelling against a repressive central government.

Sarah Taylor Ellis' Stage and Cinema interview with Tinariwen, MusicNOW Festival, Cincinatti 2103

By the time of the peace accords in 1995, the Touareg way of life had fundamentally changed; traditions had been upended due to drought and famine, and many people were forced into exile. Tinariwen’s “desert blues” survived. “We are playing music to explain how we are living and to preserve the peace,” says Ag Alhabib.

Tinariwen’s music has since risen to international acclaim, and the group has played at music festivals including Coachella, Glastonbury, and Eurokeennes. Still, their sound is always intimately tied to their homeland; a droning melody sung in Tamashek – the language of the Touareg – is set against strumming guitars like winds sweeping across the Sahara.

On Friday, April 12, Tinariwen will perform selections from their latest album Tassili, which returns the band to their roots: acoustic sounds recorded in a natural open space in southern Algeria. “For Tassili we wanted to be as close as possible to Sarah Taylor Ellis' Stage and Cinema interview with Tinariwen, MusicNOW Festival, Cincinatti 2103our inspiration,” the band explains. “The 3-week recording was a magical moment. It was a very simple, free, and intense moment we lived entirely. And it was good to hear the loud silence of the Sahara.” The album was magical enough to be awarded the Grammy for Best World Music Album in 2012.

“History is continuity. Today we have the chance of representing our culture and our people everywhere in the world,” says Ag Alhabib. MusicNOW is yet another opportunity for Tinariwen to spread their music and politics. “Today it is not easy for a musician to earn money but the fact that music can circulate so easily now, and for free, is also evidence that music is a universal language,” Tinariwen says. Most of all, they hope their global sounds will help “find the best way for the society of tomorrow.”

photos by Marie Planeille
2013 MusicNOW poster designed by Spike Press

Friday April 12, 2013 with Richard Reed Parry and Buke & Gase
as part of the MusicNOW Festival
Memorial Hall in Cincinnati
for tickets, visit

More events at MusicNOW:
Saturday April 13: Glen Hansard and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus with The Ariel Quartet and Shara Worden
Sunday April 14: Steve Reich and Sō Percussion perform the 2012 Esme Kenney Commission composed my Daníel Bjarnason
Also, Emery Theatre Gallery will feature a free weekend-long art show with works by Nathlie Provosty and Jessie Henson

for more info on Tinariwen and tour dates, visit

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