Tinariwen: Imidiwan: Companions

Luke McGrath

For a band whose name means “empty places” in their native Tamashek, Tinariwen better get used to spending a lot more time away from their beloved desert homeland.


Imidiwan: Companions

Label: World Village
iTunes Release Date: 2009-08-25
US Release Date: 2009-10-13
UK Release Date: 2009-07-07

It’s another Friday night at Manchester Uni. On stage is UK folktronica act Tunng, hawking their Blur-esque single ”Bullets”. So far, so ordinary. But amid the flashing oranges and yellows of the lighting, among the scruffy men and laptops, are three Tuareg warriors, only their eyes showing through their head-dress, jumping up and down and imploring the liquored-up crowd to clap along. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Tinariwen 2.0.

After the BBC hooked them up for a radio recording session, Tinariwen and Tunng took to the road together for a ten-date tour of the UK, joining in and playing each other’s songs. Top that off with a slot on the main stage at Glastonbury this year and the release of their latest album, Imidiwan: Companions, and it’s clear Tinariwen are no longer world music’s best kept secret. For a band whose name means “empty places” in their native Tamashek, Tinariwen better get used to spending a lot more time away from their beloved desert homeland.

Imidiwan is classic Tinariwen -- punishing grooves, buzzing, snaking guitars, handclaps, and lived-in voices. This is restless, questioning music, calling for a freedom of the mind as much as of the people. It’s also cool as fuck. Their songs are evocative in ways music seldom is; you can feel the heat in their voices, picture the haze coming off the desert horizon, hear the dust getting into their microphones, their amps, under the strings of their guitar, slowly working its way into the sound itself. It’s raw, and from the MC5 to NWA, raw means real.

A quick scan of the CD booklet also shows their lyrical topics are diversifying as much as their travel itineraries and collaborators. Perhaps tiring of the limiting portrayal of them as soldiers-turned-musos, there is equal time given to family, nomadic life, and, um, girls. Lead track “Imidiwan Afrik Tendam” is also something of a departure. Sung by the band’s most recognisable member, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib (he of the unruly afro), the country-blues chord changes and soothing melody are embellished by a children’s choir, underpinning the hopeful tone of the track. If the rest of the album didn’t lay waste to the idea, it almost sounds like a bid for the greater global market.

Like fellow world music breakthroughs Konono No. 1 (both bands having been playing for over 20 years before Western ears caught on), it is the use of electric instruments and amplification that made the biggest difference in their recent recognition. Much is also made about the idea of Tinariwen “reclaiming” the blues. Songs like “Tamodjerazt Assis” (translation: "Regret Is Like a Worm") do come off like a Moroccan John Lee Hooker, replete with ‘my life gone wrong’ lyrics (“Regret is like a worm… for my youth which I wasted”). However, Tinariwen’s sound has always been far broader than that. The band has professed a love first and foremost for the music of Moroccan and Algerian chaabi groups like Nass El Ghiwane, as well as Western rock and far beyond. “Tenhert” is even rap; vocalist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni spits harsh Tamashek syllables like an Arabic Twista as the evil monochordal groove twists and repeats.

This diversity is also a by-product of the band’s inner democracy. Despite Alhabib’s prominence (he writes and sing the lion’s share on Imidiwan), the band actually serves as a collective, housing five songwriters. This arrangement balances their sound brilliantly -- the more militant songs of ‘Le Lion’ (Alhassane As Touhami to his mother) are offset by the spry acoustic-led tracks of Alhousseyni. In fact, Alhousseyni’s contributions are a delight. “Intitlayaghen” comes on like a half-dreamt playground chant, all spiralling acoustic guitars and bright melodies. It’s a refreshing change of pace, akin to when Funkadelic used to throw in an acoustic number, a la “Can You Get to That”.

After collaborating with an English band, the next natural step (for global domination, at least) would be for them to try their hand at a few songs of their own in English. But songs in English could serve to strip away their mystique, and the romance of their oft-told back-story. The real tragedy would be for them to never eclipse that -- Tinariwen, regardless of their history, are simply a kick-ass band. To dwell on any other fact would be a disservice.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Kuinka appeal to ornery Renaissance royalty with a joyous song in their infectiously fun new music video.

With the release of Americana band Kuinka's Stay Up Late EP earlier this year, the quartet took creative steps forward to deftly expand their sound into folk-pop territory. Riding in on the trend of moves made by bands like the Head and the Heart and the National Parks in recent years, they've traded in their raw roots sound for a bit more pop polish. Kuinka has kept the same singalong, celebratory vibe that they've been toting all this time, but there was a fork in the sonic highway that they boldly took this go-around. In this writer's opinion, they succeeded in once again captivating their audience, just in a respectably newfound way.

Keep reading... Show less

Merseybeat survivors, the Searchers made two new-wave styled, pop rock albums in 1979 and 1981. They covered Big Star, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. What could possibly go wrong?

Imagine the plight of the Searchers in 1979. You've been diligently plugging away at the night-club circuit since the hits dried up in the late '60s, and you've just made a great, pop-rock record. Critics love it, but radio won't play it as they're too busy scrambling around to find bands that look like the Pretenders, the Boomtown Rats and Elvis Costello, but who sound like… well, the Searchers.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.