The bandmates in desert-blues collective Tinariwen are no strangers to living a nomadic existence. Their people, the Kel Tamashek (commonly known as the Tuaregs), typically migrate throughout northern Africa, ignoring recognized international borders and spreading into Niger, Chad, Mali and Libya, among other countries. Additionally, the musicians have maintained a grueling international touring schedule in more recent years.
So when political unrest in northern Mali prevented the group from recording in the Sahara Desert — the location where it laid down 2011’s Tassili and an environment that serves as a continual wellspring of spiritual and musical inspiration — the band members did what they do best: They adapted, shifting recording sessions nearly 7,000 miles to the comparatively placid deserts of Joshua Tree, California.
“Our territory was too unsafe for our crew, so we decided to record … away from home for the first time,” said bass player Eyadou ag Leche via a translator in a late March email interview. “We wanted to record in another desert [because] we need this environment to feel good. The air, sand, rocks [and] the silence of the desert are our main inspirations. We decided to go to Joshua Tree also because … we felt at ease [there].”
The threat of danger in the band’s homeland, brought on by Islamist extremists who have imposed strict rules, including, in some cases, banning music and physically assaulting artists, is very real to the members of Tinariwen. Guitarist Abdallah ag Lamida was even kidnapped in late 2012 and held for more than a month before securing release early last January — a series of events that still has the crew rightfully on edge.
“Northern Mali is very unstable with Islamist [extremists] and armies, so we just are very careful about it,” ag Leche said. “[The region is not] secure and international talks are happening right now. We are hopeful about them, but we aren't naive either. We are following this carefully.”
The songs on the band’s most recent effort, Emmaar, touch on this instability. Album opener “Toumast Tincha,” for one, was penned in the wake of this political and social upheaval, and it calls on the populace of these affected nations to stand in opposition to these oppressive forces. Other songs are more hopeful, reflecting on the simple pleasures of life in the desert.
“We use [music] to spread the message to the world about what is happening in our territory and for our people, but it is also about love, nature, poetry,” ag Lache said. “[This is why] we feel a special connection with American blues [music], too. Like the blues, our music is about suffering, love, exile.”