Tinariwen are a very special band for me, I am the sort to keep my feelings locked up tight most of the time (hey, I’m British!) but Tinariwen unerringly punch right through my steely outer shell to my mushy inner core every time. I’m not sure how, I think they just have the right combination of rhythms, melodies and groove.
Of course what Tinariwen also have is the gravitas and punch provided by both their own and their peoples’ history, if you have a good rootle around on the internet you can find far more eloquent and better-informed writers than I offering their opinions on the band and their history. The nutshell version is that the nomadic sub-Saharan Touareg people never fitted well within the modern concept of nation states, their culture and loyalties were very different and distinct from those in Mali and Niger, this led to trouble. After the Touareg rebellion in Mali in 1963 was brutally suppressed, many fled to camps in Algeria and Libya, where they scratched and scraped a living often going to Libya where Khadafy set up military training camps, apparently duping the Touareg by promising an independent Touareg nation when he wanted an Islamist militia^. Tinariwen’s main player, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib saw his father executed by Malian soldiers at the age of four and escaped to Algeria and Libya, there legend has it he discovered the guitar and Tinariwen (the name, roughly translated, means ‘desert people’) was formed with the aid of like-minded souls.
Needless to say this was a Western music journalists wet dream – essentially they were initially portrayed as a desert version of The Clash; except walking it, rather than talking it. The band have apparently moved to distance themselves recently from this image, it’s too simplistic a summation of where they were from and where they now are. But this is a group born out of hardship and rebellion and by rebellion I mean the armed variety, not the ‘my parents are so stupid, they won’t buy me a car’ variety.
You don’t need to know any of this to love the music of course. They play a beautiful haunting version of the desert blues in which, to paraphrase what Santana said about them, you can hear the origins of American blues; to my mind there’s a direct link here to the otherness of John Lee Hooker and, later, Junior Kimbrough. Their songs carry a payload of sorrow, regret, anger and hope, delivered through achingly, delicate intertwining traditional instruments and guitars; lots of beautifully played guitars. This is a good LP for the guitar fetishists amongst us.
I first came across Tinariwen on the incredible Festival In The Desert CD (no vinyl!!), which I bought my mum for Christmas 2003. If you don’t own that CD get it, now!!! It has been called the best live album ever made and the liner notes are worth the price alone – I won’t spoil it for you, but you need this CD in your life. It’s even got Robert Plant on it (Justin Adams of his Strange Sensation-era band accompanies him*), go on. There’s not a duff second on it, but the very best of the best were Tinariwen with a track called ‘Aldachan Manin’ which is a blistering, powerful slow blues groove – it’s the second most played track on my i-pod (not that I’m anal enough to know stuff like that without even looking it up…). Needless to say my parents had already seen them and owned other stuff by them! and so it goes.
I own their LP Aman Iman (subtitled ‘Water is Life’, but I’ll just stick to the original Tamashek as it makes me feel loads more cosmopolitan than I really am). It’s a beautiful looking beast too, some excellent photography shows the band in the desert. The liner sheet is excellent, giving you not only the lyrics but a brief explanation of what each song is about before printing them in English, phonetic Tamashek and the Tifinar alphabet of the Touareg, one of the oldest alive in the world today.
The opening track ‘Cler Achel’ (I spent the Day) is my favourite. A song about displacement and wandering (as a lot of these songs are), it pulls your heartstrings whilst grooving like a bastard, there are some wonderful guitar licks all over this track, like all their more blues-based tracks it conveys a real sense of something culturally very different and yet simultaneously very familiar. It is difficult to single out tracks here but if you were planning on swooping off your lofty perch to sample its’ delights, I would recommend the bitter, mournful ‘Soixante Trois’, the freewheeling guitar of ‘Assouf’ (Longing) and the percussive ‘Ahimana’ (Oh My Soul) with its evocative vocal melodies.
The whole LP is a treat though, the bubbling gentle rhythms tie the whole thing together, suggesting a flow of water, maybe the Aman Iman of the title. My spoken Tamashek being a bit rusty I’m free to simply enjoy the sound of their voices as another instrument. I would posit that for a race with a precarious cultural, linguistic and political position such songs do function as their lifeblood, or maybe a well dispensing the much-needed , as well as for raw entertainment value.
I was shocked to read this account recently about the effects of the recent Islamist incursion upon the music of Northern Mali. This regions’ struggles continue, as will the music. The Touareg are a tough people, I think they and their music will prevail.
P.S – If you’re interested hit their website, there is a wealth of interesting videos there.
P.P.S – I have just bought their last LP Tassili, which features, amongst others Nels Cline and half of TV on The radio. I sort of wrote myself into it by doing this.
*and produced Aman Iman.
^I have simplified this horribly, please use the link before to get the full deal.