In 2010, Eyadou Ag Leche, bassist for African desert blues band Tinariwen, received his first-ever birthday present … from Flea. A member of the Tuareg, a nomadic African people that don’t record birth dates (on passports, the day and month is written as XX, January 1 if necessary), Ag Leche had recently discovered the day he was born through extensive research. The night before his birthday, Tinariwen shared the stage with Flea and his Red Hot Chili Peppers bandmate, guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, at the Los Angeles iteration of French music festival Ooh La La. During the temporary supergroup’s performance of loping single “Cler Achel” at the El Rey Theatre, Flea offered his bass guitar to Ag Leche. As another transitory desert dweller once said, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“The first present of my life was Flea’s bass,” says Ag Leche, speaking French through a translator at midtown Manhattan’s Ace Hotel, in a room that somehow smells like wood smoke, on a snowy afternoon. “We became family.”
For their sixth album Emmaar, a plugged-in departure from 2011’s acoustic Tassili, Tinariwen recruited Klinghoffer and decamped from their homeland of Mali to the United States, where they recorded at a house studio in California’s Joshua Tree. There, they kept something of an open-door policy with guest artists, including poet Saul Williams, Nashville session and touring fiddler Fats Kaplin (Jack White, Waylon Jennings), and Zwan guitarist Matt Sweeney. Despite the language barrier–Ag Leche and his band mates speak only French and the Tuareg’s native language Tamashek, even though he understands the gist of some of my questions–the musicians found a way into Tinariwen’s free-flowing riffs through body language like sidelong glances and half-smiles.
“If you take the metaphor of the tent where we play or record music, there is no door,” says Ag Leche. In stark contrast to Tinariwen’s onstage ensemble of traditional Tuareg clothing, often including the indigo veil known as alasho, today he sports tried-and-true rock star staples: black leather jacket, faded jeans. “Where we live, it is all open. Music is the right and best way that people can connect and understand each other. That’s what makes the–” his translator fumbles for the right word– “strengthness between people. You don’t need to speak the language.”
Tinariwen have been using music’s universal quality to their advantage since Francophile world blues outfit Lo’Jo invited them to headline Festival of the Desert in the late ’90s, bringing awareness to the Saharan music scene and the region’s unstable politics. The Malian government, for example, long unfriendly to the country’s rich musical history, has for years been threatening local musicians. Last year, militant Islamic group Ansar Dine kidnapped Tinariwen vocalist Abdallah Ag Lamida, a.k.a. Intidao (he has since been released).
Though Ag Leche admits he’s worried about the situation, he’s more concerned about the truthful depiction of his people and culture, which he thinks has been obscured by the media’s focus on the region’s ever-present conflict. The same holds true for the rest of the world, he adds, including the United States. “When you’re far from America, you always hear about politics and the army,” he says. “Coming here and meeting existing people is very important to us. We love hearing about the history of music, all the different kinds of music that is here.”
While recording Emmaar, they managed to forget about problems at home and kick back Golden State-style, eating burritos and watching Western movies on the studio’s outdoor projector. Ag Leche and members of Tinariwen that fought alongside other Tuareg rebels in Malian revolts throughout the 1980s see kindred spirits in the cowboy. “We feel like we are the same in our own country,” he says. “We are free; we are nomads.”
Tinariwen have always written their songs on the road; since it’s difficult for them to settle down in Mali for long periods of time, they are traveling more often than not. This wanderlust weaves throughout Emmaar‘s guitar themes, curling like dusty desert winds around the band’s handclaps, polyrhythmic gourd drumming, and husky multipart harmonies. Simmering album opener “Toumast Tincha,” which Ag Leche wrote, begins, “The ideals of the people have been sold off cheap, my friends/ Any peace imposed by force is bound to fail/ And give way to hatred,” but not all their songs are about resistance. “Tahalamot” is a dreamlike sequence about a girl, and eulogy “Chaghaybou” sings the praises of a man who wore perfume and ate grilled ram. In fact, death is something that preoccupies Ag Leche and his bandmates: Though Tinariwen are constantly in cramped touring quarters together, they never get sick of each other because “when we look at our friends, we feel that one day our friend will die and disappear, as will everyone,” Ag Leche says.
No matter where they end up next, or with whom, or how, the members of Tinariwen can’t imagine doing anything else. “It is the way we live, playing and writing music,” Ag Leche says. “It is our oxygen.”
Emmaar arrives Tuesday, February 11 via Anti-. Tinariwen return stateside to play the Brooklyn Bowl on Sunday, March 23. Doors at 6pm, show at 8pm. $20.