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.
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.