Tinariwen played 5 US shows in June, 2012, their first gigs here since forces in the north of Mali—the musicians’ home—declared an independent state of Azawad. Initially, Azawad was presented as a Tuareg homeland, the realization of a vision that has consumed the members of Tinariwen since the band’s beginnings in refugee camps of Algeria and Libya, going back to the 1970s. However, it seems now that the extreme Islamist forces of Ansar Dine are in fact in the driver’s seat—banning music, demanding women to be veiled and mostly homebound, and destroying centuries-old shrines and manuscripts in Timbuktu. Further complicating the picture is a robust drug trafficking industry in which players sometimes disguise themselves as Islamists or Tuareg rebels, when their true interest is protecting turf.
This was heady stuff to get into with my old friend Abdallah Ag Alhousseini of Tinariwen in between the band’s soundcheck and performance at Warsaw in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We started on the lighter side. I showed him a clip from a video I shot on the streets of Bamako in 1996. Recently, while reviewing this old footage, I realized that I had chatted with and filmed Abdallah years before I met him officially and heard Tinariwen. The young kid in a straw hat in this video seems a far cry from the robed, turbaned gentleman we see today, but the telltale smile is unmistakable.