"The First Present of My Life Was Flea's Bass"

Categories: Feature

tinariwen.jpg
Tinariwen
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."


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1 comments
concerned_writer
concerned_writer

Very well written and comprehensive article. But I have a big problem with the way the author - and so many "world music" reviewers - employs ethnocentrism when talking about music they don't really understand. To center a whole review around a tiny anecdote, just because it involves the Red Hot Chili Peppers and then to spend so many words talking about collaborations that are miniscule when put next to the power of this album with or without the American "stars," (seriously you can't even distinguish Klinghoffer and Sweeney's guitar parts because they are so insignificant and tastefully incorporated) show a weird need to place everything in American terms. These guys have been playing music for decades and have reinvented a style that is literally thousands and thousands of years old. Yeah, it's a cute story that Flea gave Ag Leche a bass, but it makes it seem as if this is some huge honor bestowed on Ag Leche. How about focusing on how honored the guests must have felt to be let into this secret world - how in the recording of Tassili, Nels Cline felt so out of his element and uncomfortable stepping into a world that he already considered perfect that he almost considered refusing the collaboration, or maybe look at the reasons why Flea felt it was appropriate to give up his bass. If we keep looking at music that is far away from us physically with such a narrow, home-centered lens we're never going to be able to listen to or write about the music for what it is. It will keep being "world" music, "other" music that we only occasionally care about when some American star plays a few notes on an album and then gives a tweet of approval to the band or something. Let's open our ears a little bit, think about music and enjoy music from around the world without having to spend all our words focusing on the stamps of approval from the Western music industry... Ok, I'm done. 

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