Shortly after the release of his last album, Afropentatonism, I met with vocalist, guitar and bass player, Alhousseini Anivolla at Alexanderplatz for a Berlin Bazzar photo shoot.
It was a bright and sunny day in August. Alhousseini showed up inconspicuously clad in jeans and button-down shirt and spent a good ten minutes changing into his traditional garb, wrapping his head meticulously in a black turban and donning a long bright green cotton shirt, fitted with wide sleeves, covering the knees.
When he was done, posing with his guitar on the expansive, windswept Alexanderplatz, full of milling tourists, he looked like a beautiful alien beamed down from a distant planet.
At the end of the shoot, we had a chance to chat a bit, and Alhousseini told me about his three homes – Niger, Berlin – and Bonn, where his German journalist wife lives.
Asked which address he likes best, he opts for Bonn, which is more intimate than Berlin and where people take the time to say hello, unlike the anonymous Berliners, who are too wrapped up in their mobile phones on the subways and busses to spare a smile for Alhousseini.
Once a year he goes back to Niger, a landlocked country in western Africa bordering Algeria, Libya, Chad and Nigeria, slightly less than twice the size of Texas, where the people are overwhelmingly Muslim, French-speaking, and make their living by and large by tending livestock and working the land.
Though he likes to play down his roots, Alhousseini belongs to a local minority – the Imuhar people, otherwise known as the Kel Tamashek – known to the world as the Tuareg, at 4.3 per cent of Niger’s population, a group of nomadic Berbers from the country’s north-western part.
In the 18th century, the Tuaregs migrated from the northern desert and united with dominant Hausa people to wage war against the Fulani empire, a Muslim theocracy that flourished in western Sudan in the 19th century. Shortly thereafter, the French colonial army forcibly occupied the Tuareg’s traditional homeland in the central Sahara, which stretches across the Sahel, creating an awkward colonial construct they called French Sudan, later known as Mali.
In the 1950s the French colonial administration considered joining the north with the Saharan regions of other French colonies to create a separate Tuareg state, but the idea was abandoned because the territory proved unviable without access to the Niger, the core of the Tuareg nation.
Alhousseini is the son of nomads, and as such, lived out his childhood and youth in the Sahara, amidst rolling dunes and sweep wells tending goats and camels. Fleeing drought he settled in Niger’s capital city Niamey with his family in 1987. There he taught himself guitar and soon began jamming with other desert blues musicians like Abdallah Oumbadougou and the group, Tinariwen.
Back then “desert blues” was just beginning to hot up, climaxing in the famous Desert Blues festival, which got kick started in Mali in 2001, attended by celeb musicians, including Robert Plant, Damon Albarn, Jimmy Buffett, Manu Chao and Bono from U2. The festival became known as the “African Woodstock,” set majestically in the sand dunes 40 miles west of Timbuktu. It continued until 2012, when Islamic militants put an end to the fun.
At the same time the Tuaregs were beginning to forge a unique and distinctive sound. This was the sound of Tinariwen, the renowned Tuareg guitar collective from northern Mali, who early on personified the “Desert Blues” of the Sahel, clad in their characteristic Tuareg tribal get-up and who spawned a whole genre of music, so that today there is hardly a global music festival of note that hasn’t got some Sahel band wearing the Tuareg turban.
Tinariwen, the story goes, was composed of former Tuareg rebels who had hooked up in exile in Libya during the 1980s, singing about war and the fight for the dream of an independent Tuareg nation, which they called Azawad —“land of pasture.”
The young ishumar – the jobless Tuareg migrants of the 1980s – put down their traditional four-string lutes, or teherdents, and took up electric guitars because they were portable, worldly and cool, universal symbols of rebellion and youth.
Tinarwen would go on to enjoy international fame for their haunting, unhurried, trance-like music wrought by the vast empty desert spaces, which they described as a source of inspiration and energy.
All Tuareg people listened to Tinariwen because that was the first guitar band they had, says Alhousseini.
“In the beginning listening to Tinariwen was the only way to learn the guitar,” he says.
Alhousseini then threw in his lot with a band called Etran Finatawa, playing bass, singing and composing with the outfit from 1995 till 2004.
Ultimately, Alhousseini decided to hew out a career for himself as a solo artist, a position which he has found best suited to his creative sensibilities. Asked about what he sings about, Alhousseini says, “I write about life. Changes. Love. And peace.”
Preserving culture is also a central theme. Alhousseini speaks of social changes, climate change and its impact on his people. He comments on the conflicts in the Sahara and continually calls for reconciliation and peace.
In early 2012 an alliance of Tuareg separatists and jihadists from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb tried to seize power and impose sharia law in Mali. Jihadists smashed guitars, burned studios and threatened to kill musicians. Half a million people, including many performers, fled to the south of Mali or to refugee camps in neighboring countries.
The unrest spread to Niger.
“The security situation was getting worse,” says Alhousseini. “I couldn’t travel as I could before. And of course, when there is terrorism, the cultural life suffers. International artists stopped coming. There were no more collaborations. Very few concerts. People were afraid to go to concerts because of attacks. Fortunately in Niger nothing happened. But in Burkina Faso and Mali you had these attacks in restaurants and hotels.”
At some point Alhousseini met his future wife, a German social anthropologist and a journalist with Deutsche Welle, who encouraged him to pick up and leave Niger and come to Berlin. The German capital he finds inspiring in its own way, as well as a bit saddening – in particular with regards to the way the people here treat their elderly.
“We see old people as a treasure,” says Alhousseini. “We feel that we should keep them at home till they die. So sending them off to a home is something a bit shocking.”
What he appreciates in Berlin is the freedom, people’s lack of compunction about social mores and hang-ups.
“If someone is taking off his clothes in front of you, you don’t care. It’s not your business. It’s not like in Africa where people have all these rules you have to respect and follow because of the family and because of society – because of honour. People in Berlin are really laid back. They don’t worry too much about other people’s problems. It’s only yourself that you are concerned about, that you must look after. Not other people. This is something positive about Berlin.”
The Berlin audience is not an easy one, Alhousseini concedes, liking its music “electric and loud”. In contrast, Alhousseini’s music is “mild and soft, spiritual and healing”.
“My music helps people if they are feeling stressed,” he says, “or if they are really tired of everything, or if they have – how do you say, if they have some problems. They can listen to this music, and they feel better. It’s about feeling one with the universe.”
This past summer Alhousseini came out with a new album called Afropentatonism. Originating in ancient Mesopotamia circa 3,000 BC, the pentatonic scale spread to the four corners of the globe, and is found today at the root of blues, jazz and country music. Afropentatonism – its African variant – is what links together Alhousseini and fellow musician Girum Mezmur from Addis Ababa. The two guitar players came together for this release to kick out the jams in a Sahel/Ethio-jazz style.
There is something wonderfully strange and alluring about the guitar playing on this latest album. At times invoking sonic visions of Western guitar heroes like Hendrix and Santana, more often, however, it conveys a very non-Western sense of humility in the face of the infinite, as though the two guitarists were honing their licks around a desert campfire surrounded by vast nothingness.
With all due respect to Mezmur, it is Alhousseini who gets the upper hand here, supplying the vocals as he does, which are delivered in a style that is part chant, part invocation and part high-spirited whooping it up. The tracks are wonderfully repetitive to the point of being hypnotic. Once a groove is found, the two musicians stick to it with an urgent force, yet lightness of spirit. The result is almost trance-inducing, a soulful, yet secular musical mode deriving from the same sacred root of Sufi zikr (ritual chanting of the names of God), common in the Sahel.