Yet the soulful melodies and punchy rhythms of their tracks - from 2011's Tassili, winner of a Grammy for Best World Music Album to breakthrough album Aman Iman and The Radio Tisdas Sessions – are of a quality which, biography aside, can't be ignored. Plenty of people listen to and love the band without reference to that context; so can the music and that history be separated? We find out.
How would you describe your music? People sometimes compare it to the blues...
Our music takes its roots in the ancestral Tamashek's (Tuareg) culture. It's about chants of the desert, clapping – dancing during celebrations or simple meetings. The basics of the Tamashek music are the 'tinde', a percussive instrument played by women, 'imzad': a violin with one string, and a flute called 'taghanift'.
Tinariwen incorporate modern instruments - guitars, bass, and so on - alongside ancient instruments. But we play a style of music which is still, and will always be, inspired by the Sahara. We never really listened to American-style blues but a lot of people tell us they can hear a similar vibe in our music: what we call Assuf.
'Assuf' is a complex idea.
The word describes a certain feeling of nostalgia that you can only experience when you are in the desert. Assuf is a feeling and a music at the same time. Our music.
Now, your recorded music really makes the listener feel like they're with you while you're playing. Do you think that kind of immediate sound comes from how you write your songs, or the way you play and record them?
It’s what we tried to do on our last album, Tassili, anyway. It was the first time we didn't record in live conditions, with electric guitars, as we play on stage. This time we wanted to bring the listener with us around the fire in the desert. We settled a camp in the desert and recorded the way we play when we are just among ourselves, acoustically.
How do you go about writing a song? What's the process?
When we’re home we play regularly, while having tea, talking. A baby version of a song can be born like this. And slowly it becomes a real song after we play it a lot - it can be a long process.
Who would you consider to be your main influences, musically or otherwise?
Our only influence is our traditional music. That, and the desert itself, in a way.
You're currently touring lots of different countries. How do different audiences and different countries react to your sound?
All the reactions are very enthusiastic, even if different, in a way. When we played in Hong Kong in March we didn't know what to expect, but at the end of the show everybody was standing and dancing.
Here in the UK at least, there's a language barrier for your music. In your music, is the voice another instrument, or does a listener lose something listening to you without taking time to understand the words?
Of course the lyrics are important, and very poetic – that’s why we translate them for our album booklets and on our website. But listening without understanding the lyrics is just another way to receive the message.
Following on from that: your music is often political, and by the nature of the formation of your band, maybe, it's rebellious. Is music a good vehicle for politics or rebellion?
Music is a good way to deal with liberty.
Tinariwen has a famously great live sound. How important is live performance? Can it do things that a recording can't?
Playing live is a natural way to play for us. Recording isn’t. We started recording albums later, but we’ve always performed live. Playing live is different from one night to another and recording is only a photograph of one moment. They are two great things, although very different.
Finally: is there anybody you're listening to right now that you'd recommend?
Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, of TV on the Radio (shown performing in the video above).
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