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CD Review: Tinariwen – Imidiwan: Companions

Their finest album. Over the past almost thirty years, Malian Tuareg desert rockers Tinariwen have pushed the envelope, taking their hypnotic, trance-inducing duskcore sounds around the world. This is their most diverse, their catchiest and most memorable cd yet, a triumph of determined, contemplative guitar, methodically swaying rhythms and vividly aphoristic lyricism (sung in Tamashek, their native tongue). All of the songs here share Tinariwen’s trademark resolute, sometimes mantra-like insistence, many of them inflected with an Ali Farka Toure-style bare-bones desert blues vibe. Yet this is also their most ambitious effort: it’s their most accessible, most straight-up rock-oriented album so far. The opening track, like most of the others written by the band’s often inscrutable leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, works a ridiculously catchy riff that would be perfectly at home on a Clash album. Except that it’s about half the speed the Clash would have played it at, Alhabib ruefully examining the state of a revolution whose leaders have run dry: they can’t keep the trees growing.

Another tune, a battle anthem, kicks off with echoes of Hendrix: but it’s the pensive, thoughtful Little Wing Hendrix, not the madman of Machine Gun. A traveling song slinks along with contrasting layers of male and female voices (there are ten fulltime members in the band, but as this album was recorded on the band’s home turf in Mali, they had plenty of friends available to join the fun). A rousing call for Tuareg unity gives bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, the band’s most overtly aggressive player, the chance to go up the scale and add some striking crescendos within the song’s characteristically static, resolute structure. There’s also a strikingly warm, almost pop song with a 60s soul feel, a haunting, pulsing number whose eerie descending progression evokes early Pink Floyd or even Bauhaus, and the fiery Ere Tasfata Adouna (He Who Values Life) that wraps up the songs, guitars finally cutting loose and ringing out in a hailstorm of overtones, jangle and clang. The album concludes with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek drone instrumental a la the early Grateful Dead, Alhabib playfully toying with his amp for as many subtle feedback effects as he can find. As psychedelic music goes, this is unsurpassed. It ought to win an even wider audience for the self-described “world’s most popular African band,” and for those who’ve already discovered them, it’s a must-own.

An especially valuable plus here is a complete lyric sheet with English translations. As another bonus, the cd includes a thirty-minute DVD film by Jessy Nottola, an understatedly shot mis-en-scene featuring clips of the band in their milieu along with songs from several of their recent albums. Which makes this one a considerable bargain.

October 26, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tinariwen – Aman Iman: Water Is Life

It’s not often that a band lives up to its press. This time, believe the hype: Tuareg nomad rockers Tinariwen are every bit as good as the recent lovefest in the Western press would have you believe. And they deserve it: it’s something of a miracle that this band exists at all. A close-knit but diverse group of Tuareg freedom fighters driven from their traditional stomping grounds in their native Mali by a repressive regime and the encroachment of Western multinationals, they add electric instruments and a small dose of rock riffage to the ambient, chorus-driven traditional desert songs of their native culture. The result is hypnotic and very captivating. Ali Farka Toure is the obvious comparison, but Tinariwen’s material stays closer to the original source. Musicologists will have a field day with this stuff: what they play isn’t a simple chicken-or-the-egg question. When American and British rockers started stealing melodies from across the third word back in the 60s, third worlders were doing exactly the same thing, appropriating rock arrangements, motifs and instrumentation, and it’s clear that Tinariwen have done this to a certain extent. But they aren’t really a rock band: their music is world music in the best sense of the word, original songs based on ancient traditions which also draw on contemporary Malian artists like the aforementioned Ali Farka Toure and Baboucar Traore.

Chord changes aren’t a big part of Tinariwen’s music, yet their sound is as anthemic as it is trance-inducing. While a lot of the songs on this album are very danceable, they don’t bear much if any resemblance to the perennial smiley-facedness of mainstream African pop. Much of their music has a somewhat grim forebearance, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that this is music made by exiles. Their lyrics are in Tamashek, the Tuareg language.

The cd opens with Cler Achel, a slinky groove with call-and-response male/female vocals, two guitars trading off different textures (slightly distorted rhythm with resonant reverb vs. a reverb-driven lead with a lot of fast hammer-ons, providing a sitar-like effect). Very gripping. The next song Mano Dayak begins with a slow intro into a hesitation rhythm, blending electric and acoustic guitars. Eventually a choir of women enters, their voices keening eerily in the upper registers.

Matadjem Yinmixam follows, closer to Ali Farka Toure than the other songs on the album, with meandering, sputtering lead guitar over an insistent staccato rhythm. And finally a chord change (up to a fourth) at the end of the verse! It’s very anthemic as the female backing singers kick in on the chorus. The next track, Ahimana begins with a spoken word intro and then call-and-response with the women in the choir, very hypnotic in syncopated 6/8 time, the vocals just a little behind the beat. After that, the cd continues with the quiet, subdued Soixante Trois. Toumast, arguably the best song on the album brings in layers one at a time: spooky electric guitar hammer-ons, then distorted, staccato electric rhythm guitar, bass, and the drums and vocals. It’s the best song on the cd, with a nice, terse guitar solo after the first verse.

The dark, relentless Ikyadarh Dim features just acoustic guitar, percussion and a single vocal with an additional harmony voice added on the chorus. At one point someone in the band exhales audibly: out of fatigue, exhilaration, exasperation? The hip-shaking yet hypnotic Tamatant Tilay could be a big Mississippi hill country blues number, like something straight out of the T-Model Ford catalog, if it had English lyrics. Likewise, the next track, Assouf is a burning, open-tuned minor-key blues number. The cd closes with the pretty, pastoral, acoustic Izarharh Tenere, somewhat evocative of the Stones’ Moonlight Mile. All in all, a great album, absolutely one of the best of the year, something you should own if you have any sense of adventure.

Memo to Tinariwen management: get this band on the jam band tour. Haitian rockers Tabou Combo made a pile of money off of rich hippies who have nothing better to do than run all over the country with Phish, and so can these guys. Consider it a unique approach to foreign aid: it would be particularly appropriate given everything the band has been through.

December 10, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment