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 and theatrically.
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 accompaniment!
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— the music.
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 music?
Our music came from and by accidents!
What’s the hardest part about the recording process?
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 people?
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 one another.