Tinariwen – Aman Iman (2007)

Tinariwen are the real deal.

They learned their craft and coalesced into a fuzzily defined band (perhaps “collective” would be a better word) in the midst of Tuareg communities forced into exile and refugee camps by civil wars in the 1960s. Several of them foot slogged it all the way to Libya to serve in Gaddafi’s Saharan regiment. A four year old Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, whose guitar and songs are now central to the band, witnessed his own father being gunned down during the rebellion of 1963. They started working a a unit in 1979 and gigged around the Mali/Niger/Algeria triangle for years before being “discovered” at a festival in Bamako in 1998. In between armed campaigns and displacements they built a rough recording studio and distributed their music by recording for free for anybody who arrived with a cassette (this is a pre-CD means of storing music). This is street cred and non-metaphorical rebellion well beyond most rock and rollers.

Tinariwen are perhaps the most notable example of the “desert blues” genre, though a lot of their influences are more recent. And also much older as their music gives nods to the ancient Tuareg folk music as much as to Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana and Bob Marley.

They make some of the most vital, most potent, most… let’s say it… ELECTRIC guitar-based music available at present. It’s rock, yes, but with a distinct flavour. Like many of the bands from that part of the world (they are not THE SCENE, just part of it), and like Bombino (who I reviewed a few months ago), they eschew the usual rock drum kit for hand claps and dumbeks, and they use clever accenting to create subtly shifting rhythms. They often play in 3:4 or 6:8 rather than in common time. They sing in the Tamashek language of the Tuareg people.

The guitars are sharp, gritty and very authoritative. Ag Alhabib lays down a muscular wah-wah line on “Assouf”, and his guitar repeatedly bursts out of the gate between the verses of the opening “Clear Achel”.

The latter is the first Tinariwen song I ever heard. It was played by Joe Boyd during one of his Lucky 13 podcasts. It was one of the most immediately striking things I had heard in years and it set me on a pre-iTunes (in my little world) treasure hunt repeatedly foiled by licensing arrangements that meant that discs available in, say, Britain could not be delivered to South Africa where somebody else held the distribution rights but wasn’t distributing. Eventually I found Aman Iman (it means “Water is Life”) and Amassakoul at Look And Listen in Hyde Park, one of the few CD stores in Johannesburg with well stocked world music shelves.

I wasn’t disappointed (and I’m still not). I was struck by the way the guitars in the so-called “desert blues” often steered clear of the blues cliches that are so pervasive in Western rock music. I was struck by the way the guitar line would often have the effect of creating another vocal line – a device that Martin Carthy often uses. I was struck by the insistent rhythms, the pulsing bass lines and the frequent, mesmerising use of drones. (the intro to Matadjem Yinmixan is a particulary fine example). The drones are one of the more ancient ingredients in their musical stew – ululations and call and response vocals are others. I was struck by the way they could sound like they were simultaneously plugged into an electric grid and into something very ancient (the drones help a lot here – John Lee Hooker did something similar).

That’s a whole lot of being struck. But what struck me most was the energy, the spark, the uncontrived edge of the music.

Tinariwen are quite simply one of the most exciting guitar bands on the planet, and this record is probably the best introduction to them and to the music scene they emerged from.

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