The Ghetto-Blaster Grapevine of the Desert and Tinariwen’s Rebel Rock Diplomacy
Even if you do not know the story of Tinariwen, the Tuareg nomads-turned-rock-performers, you can sense their rebel souls in their latest recording Aman Iman: Water is Life (World Village, worldvillagemusic.com--March 20, 2007 release). The band made waves throughout the SaharaDesert playing what became the soundtrack for Tuareg independence and reconciliation. And now they are making waves in the American and European rock scenes. The latest buzz echoes their D.I.Y. origins in their barren homeland.
“It was a cassette-to-cassette ghetto-blaster grapevine,” explains Andy Morgan, a U.K. journalist who was so taken with Tinariwen that he became their full-time manager, describing their role in Mali long before Westerners heard their licks. “The audio quality was as atrocious as the message was powerful. It was an electrified sound and thus appealed to a youth that was wrestling with modernity. It was rock’n’roll.”
Tinariwen’s edgy, bluesy sound has earned them fans like Robert Plant and Carlos Santana, whose music inspired Tinariwen’s members when they first picked up guitars. While Plant has dedicated his career to exploring and exploiting the bent blues note he recognizes as African, Tinariwen listened to Led Zeppelin while in military training camps in Algeria. Plant’s guitarist Justin Adams produced the band's latest recording, three years after the two joined Tinariwen and several other bands on the stage of the Festival in the Desert, an annual musical gathering based on a Tuareg tradition in which desert dwellers gather for camel races, sword-fighting displays, and campfire music. Meanwhile, last July, Santana invited Tinariwen to play as part of his “My Blues Is Deep” night at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
“Santana rehearsed the two songs with Tinariwen and it was obvious he knew the album well,” says Morgan. “On stage he was grooving and added some great guitar to it. Then he came to us in the dressing room and said, ‘You came all the way from Africa, it’s a shame to play only two songs. Can you play three more?’”
“He said some lovely things about them being the roots of blues, but what he didn’t know was that Santana was instrumental, a major inspiration, to the young Tuaregs in the ’70s,” Morgan continues. “He was one of the few Western guitar players you could hear in Algeria. The songwriter Japonais—who appears with Tinariwen on the new album for the first time in a long time—said Santana was a major inspiration for him. When I first suggested to Ibrahim, one of the band leaders, to come play with Santana, he said yes in a nanosecond. I have never seen Ibrahim so enthusiastic. They were overwhelmed. It’s really important to them and really boosts their credibility back home.”
And their notoriety continues to grow with musicians abroad. Their trancey blues have caught the ears of Thom Yorke, who told the UK’s Mojo “‘The Clock’ was totally taken from this weird ‘Arabian festival in the desert’ record that Robert Plant did. There are a couple of tracks where these guitar players from Mali play these amazing riffs. So I copied their style and improvised for 10 minutes and then just randomly recorded bits until I captured something of what they were doing." Even Preston from the Ordinary Boys and Big Brother was seen on TV saying “I'm going to Mali with my brother to see this guitarist [sic] called Tinariwen. He's supposed to be really amazing.”
The lyrics on Aman Iman—which are beautifully documented in tifinar characters, possibly a first for a Tuareg album, with transliteration and English translations—tell of exile, struggle, and division. The fierce nomadic Tuareg people faced significant limitations and subjugation, first at the hands of French colonizers, and then by the Malian government in the post-colonial era. A resistance movement emerged and the conflicts that ensued led to much bloodshed. Surviving Tuaregs faced displacement, exile, and unemployment, creating a ripe musical crossroads of tradition and rebellion. Tinariwen band members transposed tradition and problems of the day onto electric guitars, singing of their plight as well as of the need to adapt to their changing world.
On “Matadjem Yinmixan,” Ibrahim, who wrote the majority of the songs on the album, sings “Why all this hate between you, which you teach your children? The world looks at you and surpasses your understanding. You who resemble neither a westerner nor an Arab. Your faith in the tribes blinds you to the truth.” The lyrics of “Imidiwan Winakalin” say, “Friends of my country, I live in exile. I fight against my thoughts. I’m losing my grip on the world.”
“Tinariwen has been fighting a battle on two fronts,” explains Morgan. “One is the battle fighting against the Malian government and the political and social oppression and exclusion. The other is the battle within Tuareg society, against a kind of short-sightedness, an ‘inward-lookingness,’ of old traditional society. It’s clear the Tuaregs lost out so badly from independence, because they weren’t hooked into the modern world at all in the ’60s. They didn’t know what was happening to them. Tinariwen is raising awareness about modern life.” On “Mano Dayak,” band member Abdallah clearly credits Dayak, an influential freedom fighter, as one of the people who opened Tuareg society to modern influences.
While Tinariwen’s position within the Tuareg freedom movement and their parallel rock world were much touted around the release of their first two CDs (The Radio Tisdas Sessions and Amassakoul), the latest effort—which includes the touch of engineer Ben Findlay (of Real World Studios fame)—reveals a subtle and less-exposed side of the band.
“People often point to Tinariwen as a real rockin’ band with this kind of hard, droney energy,” says Morgan. “But there are certain songs on the album that represent this very spooky, very spaced out, desert feel where they are not trying to make dance music at all. The last song on the album, ‘I Lived in the Desert’ speaks about Ibrahim’s experience with the whole spirit world. There is this very rich belief in spirits. Ibrahim spends a lot of time in the desert. He tells endless examples of where he’s been out in desert on his own, playing guitar around and he gets this horrendously scary feeling that there are spirits around him. He might be sleeping by a well and he hears voices as if there is a whole troop of travelers to give water to their animals. But when he goes to look, there is nobody. Or he meets someone where the person looks at him and is silent but there is another being inside this person who talks to him and tells him things. It is a part of the pre-Islamic animist culture of the Tuaregs. That last song is very much about that. People latch onto the fact that they were in a rebellion. But there is also this very spiritual side of them which is all to do with the desert, nature, calmness, quietness… the mystery of it all.”