The latest issue of Songlines has a photograph of Tinariwen on the cover. Ibrahim ag Alhabib gets to stand at the front, as usual, because he has the most rock ‘n’ roll hair in the group. This hair is a big, bushy mass, a respectable explosion of curls, hair that could go rasta overnight if it wanted to. The band says that it turned from warfare to music in order to bring attention to its people, the Tuaregs, who have been displaced from their nomadic patch in the Sahara, but I imagine Ibrahim ag Alhabib’s glorious head of hair looking disdainfully around at its desert milieu, the sand, the guns, and muttering in its owner’s ear: “I am wasted here. We must go into show business.” And so a band was born.
The headline across the photograph runs like this: “Tinariwen. Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Ready?” I’m not sure that rock ‘n’ roll cares. Oh, people will listen to the album and then they’ll talk about Ali Farka Touré and then they’ll say, “Desert blues, it’s desert blues, you know, like real blues but different, because the people are singing in Saharan or something,” and then they’ll purse their lips and nod thoughtfully, but rock on the whole will wander on as if Tinariwen had never existed.
The world music press sometimes has a fascination with the idea of mainstream genres and mainstream album sales. It’s as if the Top 40 is behind a window and here’s world music with its nose pressed against the glass, watching people throw money at Nickelback and Norah Jones. “Why not us?” it sighs. It doesn’t seem healthy, this attitude of deprivation, the sad eyes hanging out on stalks, always looking for something magical — the breakthrough song! The band that the mainstream world notices! Amasskoul, Tinariwen’s last album, attracted admiring reviews in the kinds of magazines that usually discuss English-language bands, but Amasskoul didn’t do The Great Thing: it didn’t Break Through. It was loved, though. One commentator said that he found it monotonous, like sand dunes rolling on and on and on, but, overall, it was loved.
Aman Iman is more of the same, with a grimier, sharper focus. It won’t necessarily Break Through but that doesn’t stop it being very good.
Ibrahim Ag Alhabib [Photo: Alioune Ba]
The group plays rock guitar with a rangy American sound, broad and lazy and slow. You can see where the “desert blues” tag comes from. The rhythm isn’t the same as blues but the mood is similar. It’s a downbeat downslide with an optimistic twitch of salt at the end of each twang. The downward movement says, “Sadness”, then the Vegemite twang adds, “Never say die.” But the trot of the guitar is not a trot that’s familiar to blues. It’s the lurch-up lurch-down gait of a camel. There’s at least one other place where the music of the local nomads moves with the same step as their favourite riding animal, and that’s Tuva. You can tell music from that area because it runs like a horse. Listen to Yat-Kha. Even when it’s doing a stormy, mostly-English rock song like “Come Along”, you can hear the horses in there, galloping away.
Tinariwen never sounds like that. It can do rock and Yat-Kha can do rock but they’ll both be different rocks because of that camel and that horse. And this is one of the reasons why listening to music in a foreign language is about more than being tantalised by words you don’t understand. It shows you a difference between people who have traditionally ridden camels and people who have traditionally ridden horses and people from countries where cars have taken over for generations — long enough to affect the music — and then they make “Jesus Built My Hot Rod”, by Ministry, which is an excellent song.
Tinariwen: (left to right) Said, Hassan, Eyadou, Bassa, Ibrahim, Intidao, Abdallah [Photo: Thomas Dorn]
The other thing about Tinariwen is that they clap. They rarely use drums. Instead, they have this clapping. The clap is their percussion, their time-keeper. The clap is their most obvious link to Tartit, another Tuareg band that has been getting some press recently. Tartit loves the clap. The members of Tartit are almost all women, which makes them sort of the chick Tinariwen, or Tinariwen the bloke version of Tartit. Tartit embraces the traditional clap and downplays the modern guitars. Tinariwen balances the two together. They unite the old local music and the modern foreign music with unusual skill. They bring a rock music dirtiness into their songs too: the guitar note that grinds itself into the mud at the start of “Clar Achel”, the way the singer’s voice lingers and goes rusty during “63”, a song about the 1963 rebellion in which Ibrahim ag Alhabib’s father died. They don’t make the mistake of associating modern foreign music with cleanliness, as some groups do.
At the root of their music, and the music of Tartit as well, is the massed trance-chant. It gives Tinariwen’s songs a denseness that you rarely hear in English-language rock. It also leaves them with that sand-dune sound. (The dry chant seems to be common currency across the globe: it’s one of the reasons why Australian Aboriginal music struggles to update its musical traditions and get them out into the wider world. How do you unite a long, flat chant and a short pop song?) This is not music that deals briskly in verse-chorus-verse. Each song is an ecosystem that bubbles up and down, beetles crawling under the mulch, trilling noises breaking out and then subsiding, a drum (for once) in the background murmuring toom toom.
Tinariwen is not the only Tuareg group out there, but when it comes to uniting rock music with local traditions, they’re the most advanced. They rock, they clap. They might even Break Through. You never know.