Interview: Tarwa N-Tiniri – The Musical Embrace of the Desert (December 2023)

Words by Marco Canepari / Photo by Lahcen Taghlaoui

There was a moment during the rendition of the yet-to-be-released track ‘Lɛfu‘, when it felt like being whisked away to the town of Merzouga, at the doorstep of the Sahara Desert, where Tarwa N-Tiniri call home.

The Cinema Renaissance in Rabat, already brimming with the energy of hundreds and hundreds ecstatic music enthusiasts from all over Africa and Europe, joined collectively in the infectious chorus of the song, driven by the relentless beat of percussion and rhythmic guitar riffs. The magic of the ‘sons of the desert’—or Tarwa N-Tiniri in the Amazigh tongue—resides in those moments and quintessential Tuareg vibes brought by the six musicians to the Moroccan capital for the grand finale of their Visa for Music’s showcase.

The next afternoon, following impromptu jams in the Festival’s Expo area at the Mohammed V Theatre, we had the pleasure of sitting down and having a chat with Mustapha Ait Ba, percussionist, guitarist, and singer of the band, and exploring the remarkable journey of the project.

We began discussing Visa for Music, an international music gathering celebrating its 10th anniversary, attracting music professionals from across Africa and beyond. Mustapha said, “Being at Visa for Music is something special. It’s like a bridge that connects artists, festivals, managers, labels… It gives us the opportunity to meet many festival directors, and it’s like a marketplace for our music. So, I found that it’s nice to be here, to be present on this stage and to showcase and perform our music.”

Finding their path in the Moroccan music scene has indeed had its challenges. The band, which includes Mustapha, Hamid Ait Ahmed, El Mokhtar Ait Nacer, Smail Ait Nacer, Youssef Ait Nacer and Mohamed El-Mobaraky, has persevered through sheer commitment, now reaching its twelfth year of activity. Mustapha explained, “Visa for Music is also important because at times, travelling around Morocco to meet people and artists to collaborate and work with them is a bit difficult. Sometimes there are literally no means of transport to do that.” Yet, these obstacles have only fuelled their passion even more.

Recalling the audience’s wild enthusiasm for their music the night before, with everyone singing and dancing, led us to question Mustapha about the band’s increasing popularity in Morocco. “We’ve played at loads of festivals all over Morocco, like Atlas in Marrakech, Taralgalte in the desert, and also in Rabat and Agadir. These experiences helped us keep going. They gave us the push to keep looking for more chances and don’t give up. That’s how we get stronger and stronger.

A lot of folks at the gig last night were from our area but now live in Rabat. They all sent us messages saying they were coming to the show, and that made us very happy.”

The band’s recent collaboration with Dutch composer and pianist Thijs Borsten marked a significant milestone in the band’s journey, bringing Tarwa N-Tiniri music outside the Moroccan and African borders.

In April 2022, Thijs travelled with a camera team to the Sahara to meet, film, and perform with the members of the band. Together they gave life to the Nomads in Music project, which eventually developed into a tour in the Netherlands, an album, and a documentary. “Working with Thijs has been an amazing experience,” Mustapha recalled. “It’s truly something we all cherished, as it gave us the chance to show the world that music can bring us together.

We weren’t in touch before, but Thijs discovered our music and felt something special in it,” he continued. “He invited us to collaborate on a project, and when we listened to his music, we found him to be a great musician. So, we decided to do it, and we started creating the project, which included filming a documentary. In the end, we got a high-quality documentary and music, so we are happy.

Working with Thijs was a valuable experience for us as musicians from the desert. We learned a lot from him and shared many things in music, especially in the creative processes. He’s the kind of person who generously shares information, and we are thankful for that.”

Venturing into European territories was a leap into the unknown for the musicians, but it proved to be fruitful and exhilarating. “We won’t forget it also because it gave us the chance to go to the Netherlands and discover that culture too.

To be honest, when we first announced that we would be performing in the Netherlands, there were a lot of uncertainties in our minds. It was our third time performing in Europe, but the very first in the Netherlands, so we wondered if the audience there would embrace our music or not,” Mustapha recounted. “However, when we arrived, we were surprised to find that all the theatres we were scheduled to perform in were sold out. And every time we finished our concerts and stepped back onto the stage, people were genuinely happy. They were cheering us, and that was a fantastic experience for us.”

With Akal, their upcoming album recorded and ready to be released, and their presence felt across continents, Tarwa N-Tiniri looked forward to the future. “We’ve recorded the new album, and the first single is out as a promotional release. It’s available on all platforms. In the future, inshallah, in January, we will announce another song from the album. We plan to keep the album under wraps until April when it will be officially released. Then we are also planning a tour, both in Europe and Morocco.”

About the creative process behind the the new album, Mustapha explained, “All the songs on the album are original. We draw a lot of inspiration from our culture, particularly from the south-eastern region of Morocco. We take pride in our work, and all the band members put in a lot of effort to maintain high quality in our music; we do a lot of research too. We play music because we like it. So, we want to share the good power of music. There is a quiet, a silence in the desert. So, what we try to do is bring that feeling into our music and create what I call ‘good noise,’” Mustapha stated.

As we asked if there’s any favourite song, Mustapha revealed “One of our favourite songs on it is ‘Aghbalu,” he explained. “It’s a beloved song in our region, especially among the women and children of the Wadi. We reinterpreted its traditional lyrics into our own composition. Releasing it with a music video brought us closer to our community, as they embraced it warmly, incorporating it into their own lives.”

As the interview with the Tarwa N-Tiniri singer continued, the discussion shifted towards the band’s connection to other Tuareg bands, and their efforts to preserve their culture. “We admire bands like Tasuta N-Imal, Daraa Tribes, and Meteor Airlines,” Mustapha said. “They, like us, are committed to celebrating and sharing Amazigh culture through music.”

Exploring their roots in Merzouga, a place tucked away near the Algerian border and encircled by the Sahara, the band found their inspiration. Even though the Amazigh communities living in the region have seen many young people leave over the last few decades, Mustapha and his bandmates decided to stick around. “Merzouga is our home; it’s where we have our space to come together, play, and rehearse. A lot of young people left the area looking for a job yet we’ve chosen to stay. It’s quiet and inspirational for us. It’s a place that gives us many, many ideas to create. It’s the perfect place for our music too. For our kind of music is good to be there to practice it.

Then, more and more tourists are now travelling there. They want to explore the region, learn about our traditions. So, we said, why should we live in the city? Why should we move there? We want to keep our originality; we want to stay true to our roots and real.

But now, things seem to change a bit, more and more young talents are starting to return to the region, and Mustapha recognized the need for support and guidance to help them thrive. “Our region is becoming a nurturing ground for talent, but young people need a push, they need encouragement to fully blossom,” he observed.

As the conversation wrapped up, Mustapha’s excitement about Tarwa N-Tiniri’s music shone through. With enthusiasm, he urged listeners to dive into their unique sound. “Our music” he said warmly, “is a blend of rock and the vibrant energy of the desert. Songs like ‘Ifaw Ul Nnegh,’ ‘Tariyit,’ and ‘Akbalu’ which is our latest single, they all encapsulate our essence. I believe once someone hears our music, they’ll not only enjoy it but also gain a deeper appreciation for our culture.”

Photo ©: Lahcen Taghlaoui