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