The 2015 release of the album “Mississippi To Sahara” by the artist Faris was a unique and intriguing twist on the conventional Weissenborn approach. His brand of “Desert Blues Rock” & “Rural Delta Blues” in the traditional African Tuareg style was like nothing we had ever heard before utilising the Weissenborn. I was beguiled and baffled initially on hearing it but after repeat plays the album really opens up and releases its magical charms that make this album truly unique. Where classic American blues and West African music cultures collide, the delivery and performances transfix you keeping the balance perfectly between the two styles. The project has been sympathetically kind to both camps and has gained critical acclaim the world over with the worlds most notable weissenborn player giving his personal approval and praise. We caught up with Faris to unravel the concepts and challenges behind the album while listening to his fascinating theories about the Tuareg people and their style of music and of course that unforgettable moment he was summonsed for an audience with Ben Harper!
I think it would be good to explain at this point to the readers your personal family connection to the Tuareg people and to complete the circle to fully understand your driving commitment and passion for this style of music.
“Oh, Ok. Very simple. My mother was a Tuareg from the border Algeria-Mali, my father's Italian. So I have half of my family in Africa and the other half is in Europe”.
Tell us about your father and his record collection, that had a profound impact on your adult musical tastes did it not?
“Yes, absolutely. My father was very ahead of his time in collecting records from every part of the world. He was and still is a tasteful musician,he plays different kinds of instruments. He and mama used to play all the time, it was a jam all the time, everyday after dinner there was music. My uncle (my father's brother) was an accomplished jazz musician, multi-instrumentalist, incredibly talented, he could have ended up being a famous musician. So I had all this traditional Tuareg music, rhythms, my mother chanting and dancing, my father and uncle playing all kinds of instruments, inviting friends from almost every african diaspora you can name, Brazilian, Cuban, Colombian, Exetera. It was fun!! Man you made me miss those days, am I growing old too fast”?
Your early musical direction was very much Jimi Hendrix influenced i believe, that period in your playing career took you on many foreign travels and experiences i believe, please share some with us.
“My first direction in guitar playing was influenced by Jimi, but I was already 15 by that time. I have been a musician since I was born. I did not have an alternative. I was already a percussionist as a kid, then at 13 I tried drums and bass, and then a friend of mine gave me a record by Jimi Hendrix. That's when I started playing guitar, cause it seemed very cool to me as an instrument. Then I took many directions, you know each one of us need to explore a lot before he finds his or her spot, I had countless garage bands, and I managed to remain a multi-instrumentalist while growing as a guitarist. Music was always there in all of my trips, also moving and changing places makes you being alone most of the time, so I used to comfort and solace myself with music and records”.
On the subject of musical influences there are some quite obvious ones like said Hendrix, Skip James, Robert Johnson and Son House but tell us about the less obvious ones that have helped shape you as a musician to the point where you are today.
“Countless influences!! from Fado to Elisio Vieira (Cape Verde), from Wes Montgomery to Santana, from Miriam Makeba to Toots Hibbert, Ray Charles to Taj Mahal, Sam Cooke, Fania All Stars, Ruben Blades, the mighty John Coltrane, Bonga from Angola, Classical Music, I can go on all day if you have time”.
The notes that accompany this release are the most comprehensive album notes I’ve ever seen, congratulations they are very comprehensive and informative. Tell us how you met Andy Morgan the man who wrote the albums sleeve notes. His expertise in the subject of Tuareg people seems to be very detailed indeed?
“I met Andy because he was managing Tinariwen, and I used to play a lot with them and Terakaft. He is a legend. Writer, journalist, manager, photographer. He is responsible for the first Tuareg band international success, he took them to win a Grammy. He is going back and forth from Africa to UK for 20 years at least. He met Tinariwen at the first ‘Festival in the Desert’ in 2001 and went on to manage the group. In those days he was also helping organising the famous ‘Festival in the Desert’ in its early days, in northern Mali. He really is an expert of Assouf music, the music of poet-guitarists, that's how they used to call it in the early days. I am very proud of having the sleeve notes written by him. Andy used to say to me that he had this dream of a group of Tuaregs captured as slaves and deported to America ending to be the leading thing musically and influencing all the other slaves...which might as well have happened. What I like about this record, it's that it brings out some questions, not that any of us have the answers, but it's just right to ask those questions, even without answering, like where the pentatonic scale came from? the nomadic light-skinned people from the north passed it to the blacks of the south or vice versa? why is all American music like cumbia, salsa, samba, easily traceable back to the exact tribe in Africa while the blues origins are so mysterious?"
The theory behind some of Andy’s thoughts and biography seems to say (to me at least) that a lot of the famous black American blues musicians somehow have an almost sub conscious ancestral link to their african homeland roots from whence their ancestors came from and collectively they expressed this sub conscious connection through their music without even releasing it in many cases. I know that’s MY summary but I’m sure you can explain it a little clearer.
“Talking about afro-Americans, yes, they have INCREDIBLE LINKS, with Africa, without realising it most of the times. It's incredible, my life was full of those moments of astonishment, even as a kid or youngster, when I heard all of these coincidences, and after many many coincidences, I realised they were NOT coincidences. The way they used the instruments for example, it's like they are imitating the African lute, the sounds of African instruments, trying to have that kind of sound out of a guitar or a western instrument. It's incredible to listen and play the Tehardent, the Tuareg lute, when I play it I really feel like this is the Blues, it's the instrument which is believed to be the ancestor of the banjo, but anyway the connection is incredible, even in the tunings. And I am talking about traditional, ancient stuff. Now I found myself so comfortable playing this weird instrument called a Weissenborn with a brass bar in my hand and I ask myself why? Haha, maybe because everything is a circle”.
Do you recommend people read the album notes before they listen to album? i must admit i read the notes first and it did strangely give me a better listening experience after i read about the music origins, history and culture.
“Any order is fine by me. I think the music is really a language, and so it speaks for itself. Maybe the more curious people like you, can find many explanations and new shades of things on the booklet. I would not say you gotta read it, you can enjoy the record without reading it, but at the same time I am very happy to have a 24 pages booklet on my record, cause that's the kind of record I love as a fan!”
So how and when did you come back to and get immersed into the Tuareg style of music, what was the catalyst?
“As I told you I was already immersed in it since childhood, but the times I began to realise more was in my early twenties. Because Assouf Music, which was born just as traditional Tuareg music played on guitars, has evolved and has become a real genre, something very powerful for the people, just like the Blues has been for afro-Americans, it gave people an identity and a strength they never had before, and this was too appealing to me and I felt I wanted to participate into it”.
How did the idea of recording an album of Western blues classics in a Tuareg style happen?
“It was the idea of Sedryk, a French producer and pioneer when it comes to Saharan music. He made most of the artists from this area known to the world. The idea was to show how close these two styles of music were, even though they are separated by an ocean and a different history and background. I was a huge fan of the blues and a huge fan of Assouf, so I accepted straight away”.
Was this your first album and have you recorded and released anything prior to this album?
“This is my first record. Prior to this, I only recorded an EP and a single with the band Terakaft, it was called "Derhan Alkher". I always composed my own music and poetry, but I felt that with this record I could express myself as well”.
How did you chose the tracks to cover on the album?
“By instinct. Sedryk gave me something like 30 songs, I choose the ones that spoke more to my feelings”.
Where was it recorded and what other musicians feature on the album?
“It was recorded in Italy, I played all tracks except on the last two songs. On ‘War Toyed’ Leo ‘Bud’ Welch joins me on the vocals. The last song is just a jam we did, recorded live. Playing with Leo Welch was a dream come true, as a child, these were the coolest cats for me, the original bluesmen from Mississippi, he is one of them, one of the last. He said to me that the blues ‘ain't nothing but a good man feeling bad’. That sentence was incredible for me, that's like summing up all that I said about those kind of feelings in music”.
Going back a few steps to talk about your love of the Weissenborn. how did you discover the instrument?
“Haa! it took us so long to come to the point! Finally! The Weissenborn is a very recent discovery, I've been playing it since just 5 months before recording the album. It came to me as a blessing, and I loved it so much, that I immediately rearranged some of the songs to include this marvellous instrument in the record. I am a huge Ben Harper fan since I was 12, anyway since ‘Fight For Your Mind’ came out, let me count, yes, 13 not 12. But I never considered to try the Weissenborn. Recently, in the last years, while I performed solo, or with the different Tuareg bands I played in, there were always some people in the crowd waiting for me after the gig and telling me ‘your music remembers me of Ben Harper’, which was the hugest compliment for me, but it impressed me cause I did not see why, given the fact that I was playing Saharan music, singing in Tamasheq, not in English. And this happened like 7 or 8 times, until it stuck on my mind. ‘Ok, I make people thinking of Ben Harper, but Why???’ So I got back to listening with more attention to his stuff. And that's when I fell in love with the Weissenborn, because I found this video on youtube on which he was interviewed about it and explained the instrument very well. So the next day, by coincidence, I found a Chinese weissenborn copy in a shop I use to go to a lot, and I asked them if it was cheap. It was really cheap! So I bought it and started playing and everything came very easy”.
What made the weissenborn a perfect fit for Tuareg style music and for the majority of the album?
“I don't know. I play and choose what to play and how to play it by instinct. What I know is that it doesn't seem to be a guitar to me. It is another instrument, another world. It opened so many possibilities for me. A thing that I find very fascinating is that you don't have the limits of the frets, you can do the same note in so many different ways, and that's what they do in Africa, especially in the Sahara, so I guess that could be an answer to your question”.
You and me both own and play a Herrmann Guitars Weissenborn how did you meet the luthier Ermanno Pasqualto and end playing his instruments?
“After the Chinese copy, and having already the arrangements and being ready to record, I needed a better instrument. So I found Ermanno on the internet and got to meet him and to order my first weissenborn, a teardrop in fact. He his incredible, he is my sound man when it comes to Weissenborns, and what I love the most about his work are not the copies, but the new weissies he is making, the research he is doing with the sounds, this suits me very well”.
I understand you’ve recently bought an aluminium fronted weissenborn made by Ermanno, tell how that is going and what it sounds like?
“Yes, exactly what I was talking about, the Al-Wood has an incredible bass response and special harmonics to it which I never heard on any other instrument, it has an interesting sound when played unplugged, and becomes a bomb with a cranked-up marshall, it's the heaven of harmonics especially, because of the aluminium top”.
You recently managed to fulfil a long time ambition i am referring to your recent inclusion in ‘Guitar Part Magazine’, they did a full spread feature and masterclass on you and also tabbed some of your music too. That must have been a really special feeling?
“Yes, especially for a self-taught musician, having your music written down, and having people interested in learning the strange way in which you use the same instrument, yes, it was not even an ambition, I would had never thought somebody would have asked me to do that!”
“But nobody ever explored the question for the Tuaregs. And then Sedryk proposed me to do this record and explore that question which I was very happy to do. It is really incredible, even to me, and even to this day, how much traditional Tuareg music is similar to the Blues. The way the notes are approached and the scales, everything is there. Unlike other kinds of African music, in here you don't have to decode, it is already the Blues! If you listen to traditional Songhoy music, Wassoulou music, and Traditional Tuareg music, you will ear that the closest one to the Blues is Tuareg music. You gotta try it for yourself, don't just agree with me please, it might be difficult to do this for some of us living in Europe, but it is really self-evident that Tuaregs have some kind of link with that kind of expression. I don't know why there is this kind of, I don't know the word, like ‘prejudice’ I think, against the Tuaregs, that they're too light-skinned or too something to be the originators, or maybe people think that they're Arabs (and there is nothing more further from our people and culture), I don't know. What I know is what I hear, and every person be him English, American or European when he listens to Tuareg chants, Tuareg lute playing, Tuareg flutes, he his left in amazement for how close this stuff is to the Blues”.
It just leaves me to say thank you for taking the time out to speak to us and all the very best for the future and please stay in contact.
“Thank you for giving me this opportunity, of course we will stay in touch”!
Hello Faris, thank you for finding the time to talk to us today.
“Thank YOU for this interview, it's a pleasure, and this site is awesome, very well done, and very useful for weissenborn players”.
Thank you for saying so. I thinks it’s important for us to start off by explaining to my readers about the historical angle behind this style of music so we might all comprehend its origins and better understand its links to your album “Mississippi To Sahara”. So lets first talk briefly about your thoughts on how Western blues music has its origins in West African music culture. The extensive album notes written by Andy Morgan go a long long way to explaining the origins of Tuareg people, their plight and their music. But for the befit of the people who haven’t read the notes lets briefly discuss the history and concepts.
“Sure. The Tuaregs are the aboriginal people of the Sahara. This means that they were masters in the desert since millennia, from south of Tunisia to the Niger River, from Mauritania and Morocco to Sudan. They were the masters of this immense territory, always dominating it and consequently they had this huge influence on the continent's cultural elements, music, poetry, and they have always been nomads, this means that they were always exchanging and carrying things to and from with other people and tribes, material things, but also intangible things, like music or spirituality”.
“I was brought up in Africa and to me the fact that the Blues came from Africa is self-evident. Although there are obviously other influences, mainly from England and Ireland, but also Native-American influences or other kinds of influences simply because it was born in America, and some mixing obviously occurred there. But the roots of the Blues are in Africa, there are few doubts about that. All this has already been widely investigated. And the slide too came from Africa! The very idea of playing something with a slide came with slavery and the african diaspora. And I want to clarify that I am not at all advocating the idea that ‘everything came from Africa’ or that ‘Africa is better’.I am just using my knowledge and my common sense and my intelligence in order to have an idea about what happened. So let's just give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. I really think that the good stuff comes from good human mixing, just so you are aware of my personal opinions”!
“Now, if you go to Africa and try to find were are the tribes who's music is the closest to the American Blues, none of them are on the coastal regions from which the majority of the slaves are believed to have come from. Like Lomé, or Abidjan for instance. There is no Blues in Lomé, nor in Senegal or Gambia. Many great people studied this, ethnomusicologists, historians, all of this is already written in many books. So, while they were searching the African tribes or people that really had a musical culture similar to the Blues, they ended up in north of Mali. Which is far north compared to the areas in which the slaves were usually taken. And they were right, because if you are historically curious you got to go where the real stuff is, not stop at coastal regions because of stereotypes about slavery history. In Mali, the main tribes who's music is incredibly close to the Blues are, Songhoy, Wassoulou and Tuareg. Now the Songhoy and the Wassoulou links with American music have already been investigated in various projects, the coolest one for me being "From Mali To Mississippi" documentary by Martin Scorsese, and there were many people talking about them and explaining that they might be part of the roots of what happened later musically in America. Maybe also because the great Ali Farka Toure was a Songhoy, and his success helped many people opening their eyes about these sounds coming from Mali”.
You changed many of the lyrics on the classic blues covers to reflected more positive, spiritual or just deeply personal experiences, tell us why you did that?
“Because both the Blues AND Assouf have to talk about real problems and actual problems. So I just adapted the lyrics talking about real problems that were happening. I guess also this thing of singing something in your maternal language gave me the opportunity to really make those songs MY songs. It is not a covers album in fact for me, I don't feel it like that. I feel it like it's my record, and it reflects both collective things, historical things, of course some of the history of american music, as much as it reflects my own personal struggles, feelings, problems Exetera. It's very personal and collective at the same time, that's the miracle of music”.
What prompted the decision to release a limited vinyl edition of the album, it has bonus tracks on i believe too?
“I don't know, it was planned since the beginning. CD, Vinyl, and on-line stores”.
What’s the reaction been to the album so far, i must admit it’s an album you have to listen to a few times before it seems to click and open up it’s unique musical qualities. My summary of the album was “The bottom line is that this is a unique meeting of musical styles played out for your pleasure on a weissenborn which i can’t think of a better instrument suited to deliver these unique songs. 10/10 on the curio scale”
“Reaction's have been great so far. Very nice reviews, many fellows musicians becoming fans, interviews, collaborations, it opened a lot more music for me than before”.
Visit the official Faris website @
Lastly i would like you to tell us about your amazing meeting with Ben Harper, it was by HIS request i understand, that must have been a truly magical moment when the worlds leading Weissenborn playing artist asks to see you in person, tell us more please.
“Man, it took you 17 questions to come to the Weissenborn guitar, and now the last question is about Ben ! Let's say last but not least...The whole thing was started by Taj Mahal, who happened to hear the album teaser on YouTube. He then wrote to my press agent and label. Saying that I was amazing, and that finally we had the welcome return home to Africa. When I received that email, it was one of the best moments in my life. But it was not finished, because Taj said that he wanted to put me in touch with Ben, and after some days he wrote to us: ‘Ben was very excited about Faris (especially that Faris plays a Weissenborn square neck Hawaiian steel guitar, the kind that Ben is famous for playing and has made popular again around the world), Ben said to make sure Faris had his email address’. Emails were sent, things were arranged, and finally I was invited by Ben for a meeting. He is an amazing soul, an immense artist, and I am so so so grateful to him and Taj for this unbelievable thing that has happened. I was received like a king, he took out most of his Weissenborns, I believe all of them in fact, in order for me to try them, the original ones, and the ones by Tony Francis that he uses on tour. I had with me two Weissenborns made by Ermanno Pasqualato. So each one was trying the instruments of the other, commenting, asking about details and woods. I asked many stupid questions, he gave me many clever answers, we talked about the Blues, time went out so quickly. At the end, while saying goodbye, he asked me if I was willing to sign his copy of ‘Mississippi To Sahara’. Crazy things can happen in this life. Having the most important person in the Weissenborn world asking you to sign your record for him, while it's only 1 year or so that you've been playing this instrument. So I feel really blessed and I am using this instrument so much right now, and planning to use it more and more. In my shows, people really love the Weissenborn parts, sometimes I just jam with it, it's completely improvised for 10 minutes or so, I can completely lose myself in it. Never experienced anything like that before. Thank you to Mr.Weissenborn himself for this instrument, and to Ben Harper for making it known again, and accessible to all of us”!
The photos on the album artwork are simply amazing, where were they taken and by whom?
“Yes, they are! Claudia Bonacini is the photographer. She is really talented, and the trip to the Algerian-Libyan border to take the photos, the climate, it was not easy, you know, but she managed to get these great results anyway”.
Have you managed to play these tracks live or perform the album in it entirety?
“Yes, in many different versions, I like to improvise and change the songs”.
Do you play other styles of Weissenborn music other than Tuareg style, say just straight ahead western blues?
“Yes of course, I can play lots of styles. But I need to play with my style to express myself better, it allows me to heal”.
What are your future plans musically, what projects are you working on, any weissenborn related ones?
“I have just finished recording my song for an amazing new record which features David Rhodes on electric guitars, and it is done in collaboration with the JPL, of the American NASA. It's a new way to use music to make people aware of the last discoveries in space and to think about the problems we have as a planet, as a whole. I composed one song for the project and I am singing and playing it, with those amazing musicians playing with me as a band. That's unbelievable. This will be my first song composed and sung in English. It's a new step I needed to take. Can't wait to have the final mix. I am so excited about that because I really needed to explore more and do something new, rather than repeating things. I am growing as a musician and as a human and I want my songs to reflect that. Then I will record an EP with the amazing Aziza Brahim, I love her work so much and I love to connect Tuareg people with Sahrawi people. We are kin but still there are no real musical connections. All of my project will be ‘Weissenborn related ones’. In fact the weissenborn changed also the way I play regular guitar now, it gave me lots of news angles and ideas. I'm preparing my new record which we will record at the end of summer I believe. I have new songs in English as well as other songs in Tamasheq. In this first record, I had to respect the project. Next record will be very different and wide musically speaking. All of those influences are coming out more and more”.
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