At GlobalFEST 2023 in New York City, we had the chance to hear one of the great bands of modern Tuareg music, sometimes called assuf (sadness) or ichumar (derived from the French word chomeur for “unemployed”), or as Western journalists sometimes call it, desert blues or desert rock. Tamikrest is a relatively young group in the genre, and before the show, Afropop’s Banning Eyre had a chance to speak with the group’s leader and founder, Ousmane Ag Mossa. Here’s their conversation.
All photos by Banning Eyre.
Ousmane Ag Mossa: I am Ousmane Ag Mossa from the group Tamikrest. I play guitar and I am an author and composer. And I'm happy to answer your questions.
Banning Eyre: We've been following Tuareg music, and Malian music in general for many years, starting with Tartit and Tinariwen back in the early 2000s. Please talk a little bit about your beginnings, your childhood and your introduction to music.
I think that like a lot of artists similar to me, I did not start out wanting to be a musician. When I started playing, it was just to play for myself. Then I heard Tinariwen for the first time, especially their lyrics, the words. They were singing things that I could see all the time. It was as if they were expressing my thoughts, and that drew me to the music. I was living in a town where there were not very many musicians. It was very difficult to have access to a guitar, even to find a guitar. But then later when I started to go into the bigger towns, like Kidal, that was where I started to meet artists.
I needed music, but my ambition was just to make music for myself and my friends. At that time it was very difficult to survive with all the things that were going on with us. At a certain point I said, “Why not just do music? It's a good way to talk to people, and to give them messages.”
So before Kidal, you were in a very small village near the Algerian border, I read. Is that right?
Exactly. Right at the border.
And that's where you were when you first heard Tinariwen. How did you hear them? On cassette?
Yes. It came on cassettes. Every now and then, a guy would come in his car and he had a cassette player in the car and we would listen. Later on I had my own radio cassette player. So I started to listen and learn. So to learn the guitar, when I had my first guitar, I would put on these cassettes and listen and try to play the same thing.
Were there other kinds of some music you were listening to then?
I was interested in modern music. And for us, Tinariwen was modern music. If we're going to talk about Tamashek music, traditional music, it is drums accompanied by singing—we heard that a lot. But I was more interested in making modern music, like Ibrahim [Ag Alhabib] was doing in Tinariwen. And I loved the sound of the guitar also. I guess the first group I heard that wasn't from Africa was Bob Marley. And after that Dire Straits.
Dire Straits. It's interesting that so often when I speak with Tuareg guitarists they talk about Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler. Why do you think that is?
In my opinion in the 1980s even ‘70s, a lot of people who were exiled in Libya, for example. This was the era of pop and rock, and they discovered it there. For some reason the music of Dire Straits came to Africa and captured the imagination of Tuaregs. Often these young musicians in Libya would hear Dire Straits and bring those tapes into the desert. When you hear the guitar sound of Mark Knopfler and his compositions, we just liked it right away.
Was it the melodies? The sound of the guitar? What was it?
In my opinion it was his sound and his technique, but also his compositions. It all impressed me.
Fascinating, but still kind of mysterious for me. When you talk about traditional music, the idea of what is “traditional” changes over time. These days you could call the music of Tinariwen a modern traditional music.
Yes, that's true.
So when you decided to enter this game and start making your own music, what was it you wanted to do? What did you want to add to this young tradition?
What we did was to listen very attentively. There were certain things that stayed very traditional, but the manner of singing and the way of composing songs and the rhythms evolved. The roots were still there, but for me, I wasn't afraid to take the music far, to modernize it. My objective was not to downgrade the music by having it identified as Malian music or Algerian music. Music is something universal. It unites people. We connect better when there's music. A cassette by Dire Straits landed in the desert, we listened. We learned from it. It's universal. It's interesting. But I'm not afraid of having influences from England or America, Australia or Japan. Every time I have a little grain of influence, it stays with me. That grain adds to the diversity of my sound, so if an American hears my music and finds a little inspiration in what I'm doing, they will understand this music a little bit because it's not completely traditional Tamashek. That might seem very strange to them. They're going to hear a little bit of influence from what I have listened to and they will understand. And that will help them to understand Tuareg music. I didn't see a big difference between our music and modern music.
So if they look back on our generation who started this music, and see it as traditional music in the years to come, they will be inspired to do the same thing. That they will hold onto something from the music of the nomads accompanied by singing and drums, tam-tams. So even as they modernise what we have done, the roots are still there.
I was speaking with author and longtime Tinariwen manager Andy Morgan a few years ago and he described your group as being the second generation of this genre—call it assuf, ichumar, Tuareg rock, as you like. He said that your audience in Mali is somewhat younger, that your sound particularly appeals to young listeners. Do you agree with that?
Well, I certainly understand his point of view. Ten years ago it was quite different from today for the youth. We're from a generation that's getting into their mid-30s now, and of course there's another young generation coming behind us. But if a lot of young people like us are interested in our music, I come back to the words of Ibrahim. What we are saying is the same thing, though we present our point of view in society. We mention certain things that are particular to our time, so they do find themselves in our music.
So it’s the same message with a new twist, but has there been any evolution in the message with all the changes that have happened in the region in recent years? Obviously there are many continuous themes, the life of the desert, the pain of separation, and the difficulties unfolding out of the creation of the state of Mali in 1960, for example. These things are strong themes throughout the genre. But is there any particularity to the things that you sing about or the way that you think about these themes?
O.K., I'll try to explain that a little bit. You're right, there's certain things that stay, including all the things that Tinariwen sings about, things they have sung about for 30 years, things about the Tuareg cause. But we are living almost the same thing 60 years later. Thirty years ago, it was always the same problems. But young people are resolute. For example when we sing about political problems, we're still in the same situation, and we don't know if tomorrow will be worse. In the 10 years we've been singing, even though we live in the same situation, it's not exactly the same situation, so we speak about the same problems, but not in the same way. And secondly, I think that each person, each artist, each musician, for example a musician who plays the guitar, even if we play the same music, we each have our own touch, a different touch, something of our own. It's the same thing with our point of view. Even if we see the same situation in the same way, we can still have different ideas, different opinions. It's a little like that.
Speaking of guitar, I play also, and I was watching the way you play. I noticed that you play a lot with your thumb. Your thumb is very busy, and strong. The style is very much picking with thumb and forefinger, not with a flat pick.
So once again there's a style of guitar playing, but you seem to have a particular way of approaching it. I understand what you are saying that each player has his touch, but about the thumb. Is that something particular to you.?
I think that Ousmane has a sound, a touch, as you've just said. If I play a song by Ibrahim or Tinariwen, I try to play it exactly the way they played it. But in my own music, there's my own touch. When you talk about the thumb, that's certainly something that existed before me. And I know why this is. Because if I'm creating a song in the West for example, I will come up with chords to match my singing and melody. When we create a song it's always based in the melodies and notes, and if you play just the notes without any chord that you are following, if I'm alone for example, it's quite minimal. The notes alone are quite minimal. But if I play in G, for example, and I tune the low E string up to a G, that provides an accompaniment to the notes I'm playing. There's a space so the guitar accompanies the singing better than if I just played the high notes. That's the way I started. But when I have a rhythm guitar playing, I don't need to use that technique anymore.
What does the word Tamikrest mean?
The simple translation is “union.” But in Tamashek, a word like that can have a very large meeting. For example, if you say “tamikrest,” you can understand that in many different ways depending on the context. For example if you take two cords and tie them together in a knot, it could mean that. But when it comes to the name of the group, it is really the opposite of disunity. Unfortunately, the Tuareg are very divided. In the past when we were alone in the desert, there were no borders. We were nomads and we moved about freely throughout West Africa, all the way up to the Mediterranean. We had our caravans, but that doesn't exist anymore. We're now divided between five different countries with different laws. Each state has its own laws, their borders and passports. It’s really not right. You can't just take your caravan to Algeria. It's very different than it was before the territorial break- up.
So there's that. Also the members of the group come from different areas. So we have different experiences and different points of view. So it's also a union of us as artists. Each one learns the other’s culture, the other’s music to understand even things far from the desert.
Coming to the history of the group: I understand that your international career began when Chris Eckman of Glitterbeat Records met you. Can you tell us that story?
It was a long time ago, 15 years. It was quite soon after we created our group. We started in 2006 and we had been together about two years and a little. We were very motivated to make concerts in the desert especially at the Festival in the Desert, which was still happening then. So we were working hard to play at this big festival in Timbuktu. Luckily we had someone who had a car and was going to drive us. It's 1,000 km from where we were, and not really a road, just a track. But we took the chance and went. When we arrived there were all these tents in the dunes and a big stage. We stayed in a tent for three days drinking tea and making music with our guitars. By chance, just next to us there was another tent where Chris Eckman was staying, and Peter Weber with the band Dirtmusic. So since they were musicians right next to our tent, they brought their guitars, and we started to play together, just improvising. And then we thought, “Well, why not play tonight on the stage?” So we invited them to join us on stage. That's how it happened, and then we played together on the stage on another day, and we kept playing in the tent, improvising. That's how our friendship started.
That was 2006?
No. 2008. A few months later, they had the idea to create their first album and we were continuing our adventure at the festival. They were going to record their album in Bamako in 2009, and they asked us to come as invitees on the album. We accepted and went and recorded with them. I asked Chris if we could record some of our songs, because it's not often that we get to work in a good studio. He accepted right away so we recorded two songs as Tamikrest. Chris mixed them, and when he had finished, he said, “Well, why not record more and make an album for Tamikrest?” We said great. Super. So Chris came with Peter and he was our producer. He recorded our first album [Adagh] in 2009 and we toured together with Dirtmusic in 2010 in Europe. And things just went from there.
What was it like recording in the studio for the first time? Were there challenges?
It was great. Before that I had a lot of experience recording cassettes.
With just one microphone?
No. Not even a microphone, just the microphone inside the cassette machine. We had nothing. Just a radio cassette player with a built-in microphone. And you hear hear the wind. It was never clear. But that was all we had. Then in 2006 we recorded for the first time with more developed means. There was a computer with a sound card. It was a lot better than the radio cassette, but it was difficult. You had headphones and only one person could record at once. So I came, I played my guitar, then the percussionist came and recorded. Everyone had their turn. It didn't have the same ambience. But the first time in a big studio was 2009. We all came into the studio. We all had headphones. Everyone could hear everyone else. It was great.
Was this the studio of Ali Farka Toure in Bamako?
Yes. Exactly. It was fantastic.
Let's talk about your most recent album, Tamotait, starting with the title.
“Tamotait” means something like “a hope for a positive change.” If I can explain a little, when you say in Tamashek just “tamotait” like that, it's a little bit like the word Tamikrest. We're always looking for words that are a little poetic, words with a bit of a vague sense. I really like that. In our music the poetry is very important, not always something you can understand right away. For example, if there's someone who's sick in the hospital, and you talk about tamotait, it's a kind of healing, a wish to get rid of the sickness. So for someone who is sick it's like saying “good health.” But it can just be for someone who's in any difficult situation and you hope for something positive to happen.\
Do you think music has the power to heal people?
To heal someone? Psychologically? I don't know. I think music can do certain things. It has a certain power, to help you reflect. If I'm not feeling well and I listen to music, especially music that touches on the problems that I am having, it helps. I can't say that it that it removes the problems just like that. When I write my texts I don't understand the results right away. It might not be clear until five years later, or 30 years later. I understand us and I'm trying to pass a message. For me that's a lot. We speak a lot about the lives of our fathers, how they kept their culture within the system they lived in, and we give our point of view in our society, the Tamashek society. Maybe some people don't understand that right away. Maybe 10 years later, they'll start to understand. Maybe five years later when they listen to what we sang, this generation will at least understand what we lived through five years earlier. I'm happy with that. So even if there are no changes that I can see, I have the hope that it could change something later on.
You are playing tonight with a diverse group, including French musicians. Was it difficult to find European musicians who could play with the sensibility that you need? And is this related to visa problems? Talk about the band we will see with you tonight.
O.K., I will answer as I understand. If we are playing with musicians from France tonight, you see the rhythm guitarist, Paul Salvagnac. He started playing in the desert when he was 15 years old. He lived in the same region as me. He was passionate about music. He had the same passion as me. For example, he listened to a lot of blues. We liked the same genres of music. And he listened to a lot of our music, so when he began his apprenticeship, he came with his own ideas. He played rock, but he came to the desert because he wanted to understand our touch on guitar. I first met him in 2008, and in 2012, I had a rhythm guitarist who could not come on tour anymore. You mentioned the problem of visas. Well, you can't just find such a musician like that. If we have a tour in three weeks, to go through all the processes of visas and everything takes too long. So for that tour I took Paul. I was very interested in what he played. I was completely convinced, and that's how we have continued since. And the drummer also, it’s the same thing. These are not musicians I picked just like that. We have very similar ideas about music. So whether I find such musicians here or there doesn't matter.
It's the idea and the spirit that count.
Yes. Yes. As I said in the beginning I want to have a touch that is not only Tuareg. I'm looking for something more. I want to share cultures. I want you to hear Tuareg culture with a little of the West. In the end, Western, Tuareg: it doesn't matter. What counts is my vision of the music. I know what I hear. I know what I like. I know what I can produce. And if I find someone who has the same vision as me, and he sees things in a similar way, I'm not going to ask a lot of questions about whether he’s American or French. That's not what matters to me.
I heard your band at a showcase at Drom in the East Village the other night, and I know what you mean. They are very, very good musicians and you guys feel very united. Also I've had a number of experiences of playing with African musicians I've known for over the years. So I understand what you're saying. It's really more about sharing vision and touch and fidelity to a style.
Yes, and just to finish with that question, I have to tell you that we have been restricted by the [American] administration. For example, just to get to the United States is very complicated. Even for me to come here, I only got my visa two days before. And our bassist for example. We have a bassist, our principal bassist, who is in Paris. He had the same problem. He wanted to come here with Tinariwen recently.
Yes, I understand their visas were not approved.
So you see it's a bit difficult.
I understand very well. And it's extremely frustrating for everyone who loves global music. To finish, let's talk about a couple of the songs on this album. I'm curious about the messages. Maybe just pick one or two that you particularly like to talk about. Maybe the song with Hindi Zahra, which I particularly like.
We can do that. I love them all. It's hard to choose. It's like when you open a book each chapter is important.
Well I'd love to talk about all the songs, but we don’t have time for that. So let's talk about the song with Hindi, “Timtarin.
Well, you will find the translations of the text in the album notes.
O.K. I will read the translation:
“My youth died with a lot of lust. With so many facts that I thought were perpetual. Life taught me that nothing is eternal. Everything goes away. Only remains remembered. Where we go, I often call myself. No love as before, no knowledge. And when memory is long ago come to me, my thoughts demand from my heart an affection. One that I gave so much, but not anymore.”
Wow. I see what you mean about meanings that are not immediately clear. Is there anything you can tell us about this song that will help?
Well,l I have to tell you that every time you try to translate Tamashek words into French or English, you lose a lot. You lose the poetry of the singing, and the meaning. Even if you hear the song in Tamashek, you still won't understand exactly what's being said. Each person can bring their own interpretation, and understand as they like. But there is a reality that each person knows. I find it interesting to do it that way. You can't exactly tell the story for someone else. Each person interprets as they wish. But the reason I wrote this song is this: Often when one is young, one is in a rush to grow up. You think that when you were grown-up you'll have everything you want, everything that you desire, everything that you don't have now. You think you have to grow up to have these things.
Many people think this way, but in fact, there is a life that you are living right now, things that are happening right before you that are very important. There are a lot of things to do and it’s important to live. But you don't see that because you're always thinking about tomorrow. So this confusion can be a big mistake. Later on, you may realize that you passed a lot of time when you should've been living in the present. You passed a lot of time not seeing what you should have, because you were thinking about tomorrow.
That's wonderful. It reminds me of the very first time that I interviewed Tinariwen. It was at the Angoulême Festival in France, just at the side of the tent after they played. I asked Abdallah Ag Alhousseini to explain the lyrics of the songs to me, and he just laughed. He said, “You'll never understand them. I can't say it in French or in English. I'm not going there.” So that was my introduction to Tuareg poetry.
I've gone through this with my friend Andy Morgan, who you know. I know that he has translated a lot of Tinariwen’s words into French. He tries to get the meaning of the Tamashek in French, and then you have to go from the French to the English. It's complicated. When I hear the translation I say, “Yeah it's a bit like that.. But not exactly." There was a guitarist in Tinariwen who was a true poet, like Bob Dylan. He died unfortunately in 2020.
Who is that?
Japonais. I know that Andy Morgan was working on a book just to translate the songs. I think maybe to do that, you have to find a French or English poet. It has to be someone who can preserve the original poetic sense.
It’s much more than a simple matter of translating words.
You need a poet.
Well, thank you very much for the insights you've given us. This is been a great pleasure.