Together for more than 30 years, Tinariwen
are legends in North Africa. Part of the Touareg tribe—an indigenous
people who speak their own language, and whose territory stretches
over six countries—Tinariwen’s founders were freedom fighters in the
resistance against the Malian government. Consequently, the band’s
music has been banned in that country. Their charismatic leader, Ibrahim
Ag Alhabib, stands as a sort of Bob Marley/Johnny Cash/Moseslike
figure in the region, and his guitar playing skills have attracted
the attention of admirers such as U2, Radiohead, Robert Plant, the
Black Keys, Jack White, and Coldplay.
I had the good fortune to produce Tinariwen’s
Grammy-winning album, Tassili, in
the southeast Algerian desert—less than a
few dozen miles from the Libyan border—
with special guests that included Nels Cline,
Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on
the Radio, and members of the Dirty Dozen
Brass Band. As an example of the esteem
that Alhabib is held in by many other players,
when I first asked Cline to appear on the
record, his initial reaction was, “I don’t know
what I could add. What he does is amazing,
and I have no idea how he does it.”
What follows is the first interview Alhabib
has done in his career specifically about his
guitar mastery and techniques. Translation
was provided from French-to-English by
the band’s longtime tour manager, Bastien
Gsell, who was among the first westerners
to “discover” and befriend the band in 1998.
How did you make the homemade guitars you
used as a child?
When I was six years old, I made some
guitars with anything I could find—jerricane
[empty gasoline cans], pieces of wood, and
rusty wire. I tried to make instruments like
I had seen in cowboy movies.
How did you learn to play?
Alone. I was self-taught. With my voice,
I learned to tune the guitar. I started out
playing traditional songs by ear. I’ve always
looked for melodies.
Did you ever play other instruments?
In our tradition, the shepherds play flutes
around the fire during the night, so my first
occasion to touch—to try to play an instrument—
was a flute.
Was anyone in your family musical?
In my family, we are not specialized in
music, but my mother was a poet, and as
with everyone in the desert, the Tamasheq
people have meetings around campfires to
play together. Everyone sings and claps and
dances. Everybody has contributions musically
What are the most important elements in the
Touareg musical tradition?
The traditional music comes from your
origins. It is not like other’s music. It is
something in the blood, coming from a long,
long time back.
What role do women play in Toureg music?
Women are at the origins of all our traditional
songs. The men are only doing the
A lot has been made of your early days as a
band, with your reputation spreading throughout
North Africa by way of the dubbing of cassette
tapes of your music. How did that work?
During the first 20 years for Tinariwen, we
were not organized to be professional. There
was only the occasional meeting with our
friends to play together. Sometimes, someone
would invite me to have a night around
a campfire—to eat and to play music, and
to record on tapes. So we cannot know how
many tapes we did. In fact, many times, we
did not know we were even being recorded.
How do you go about choosing guitars? Once,
I was with you when you tried to buy a guitar in
San Francisco, and it took many hours of trying
dozens of guitars, and you never did find one
fully to your liking.
[Laughs.] Sometimes, it happens as an
emergency on tour, so I try to be objective.
I play, touch, look in shop, but never
buy an expensive one [laughs]. The last two
guitars I got were custom. The instrument
makers came to meet us on tour, because
they thought their guitars were good for our
music. A young luthier from Poland gave me
a homemade Telecaster-style guitar as a gift
made from some luxurious wood.
I have love for many different qualities
of guitars—from the cheap to the expensive.
I like Les Pauls and Telecasters for electric.
My first real guitar was an acoustic 12-string
that I got when I was 18, but I have not yet
tried a lot of acoustic guitars.
What other instruments in your region most
closely resemble the guitar?
The Tehardant is our principal, traditional
stringed instrument. But all of the young
Tamasheq people are looking for us to find
guitars for them, because they are hard to
locate in our region. The guitar is the new
tradition. It is the symbol of modernity.
What amps do you prefer?
I love a lot of amps. At first, it was whatever
we could find. I played a long time with
the Roland JC-60 and JC-120, Peavey Classic
50, Fender Delta Blues Deluxe, and some
Mesa/Boogies. The Vox DA5 is a good desert
amp—it runs on batteries.
I used to play with Tech 21 effects. But
now, I use nothing. Just my hands. Each
person has his style.
How important is the rhythmic element to
your guitar playing?
The rhythms and rhymes are most
important, as in our traditional songs. The
rhyme should be very precise and especially
natural, as an expression of what we see and
feel in the Sahara.
Do you use a pick?
No. Just my fingers. All of them. I just
let them feel their way to—and through—
Do you ever try to make the guitar imitate
sounds in nature?
Once, I leaned my guitar against a tree—
still plugged in—and the wind came and
started to make a sound with the guitar.
Since that time, I like to play with the wind.
How often do you improvise onstage?
We are always playing in states of improvisation.
It is essential to live in the moment.
We never write down our music.
How much do accidents play a part in your
Our music came from and by accidents!
What’s the hardest part about the recording
It is to have recording sessions without
any stress—to just play our music freely
and to be in harmony in that instant. It is
for this reason we love to record outdoors
in the desert.
What’s the biggest challenge of performing?
Just to keep the sensation, the intention,
the trance—the same as we do in the desert.
What advice do you give young musicians?
I tell them to play their home music—
what they know—and to be simple in their
manner. You must feel a true freedom when
you are playing. Don’t think too much, and
just play naturally.
In what ways does your music speak to
Our music is a vehicle for old sentiment—
which is most essential for us. Nostalgia. We
call it “Assouf.” We say, “We play Assouf.”
The effect of our music comes from ancient
practices in our culture. It is the custom in
the desert to feel happy. Music is free. It costs
nothing! And it can help you to understand
all areas of your life. From the beginning, I
felt I needed music to help me to forget my
own—and my people’s—problems. We love
our music, and we also think it is very important
to provide alternate information to the
official “news” that comes from the governments
of our lands. We want to bypass the
security problems in today’s world situation
that make it so hard for people to understand
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