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Sample Track 1:
"Lulla" from Imidiwan:Companions
Sample Track 2:
"Imidiwan Afrik Temdam" from Imidiwan:Companions
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Tinariwen, Imidiwan: Companions (World Village) 2010 Tour A Fierce Fight for Understanding: New Tinariwen Album Captures the Power and Grit of a Beloved, Desolate Sahara

The guitar hero, the tumultuous bard, the fierce philosopher, the young firebrand: Friends in the wilderness, who turned from comrades in arms in a bloody desert rebellion into dedicated artists, and finally into global messengers for the people of the Sahara. This is Tinariwen, the desert rebel rockers who transformed the hypnotic music of their homeland into a gritty new breed of electric blues and made die-hard fans of music heavies from Robert Plant to Bono.

Like the underground water table that feeds the green oasis of Tessalit, the group’s spiritual home in the relentless rock of the Southern Sahara, Tinariwen draw deep draughts from the well of Tuareg culture and their own personal experience on Imidiwan: Companions (World Village; release: October 13, 2009), recorded in the gardens of Tessalit and in the stony, beloved desolation of the surrounding desert.

After years of recording and mixing in distant Malian and European studios, Tinariwen longed to come home again for their latest album, to return sonically to the calm immediacy and signature intensity of the sound that sparked a global music phenomenon. So they tapped French engineer Jean-Paul Romann, who worked with them during their first recording sessions at a radio station in nearby Kidal.

Yet this wasn’t the same Tinariwen that had walked into the sterile confines of the sound booth nearly a decade ago. They didn’t want to go with the flow. They were older, wiser, with an increasingly refined vision of how to convey what they heard in their own music, essences of the desert’s air, sky, rocks, and silence. They knew how to engage with Romann and get just the right sound. Even if that meant jamming in the Sahara.

So Romann set up a studio in Tessalit. In the small house in the middle of the desert, anything could happen. It was a place of hospitality and a hub of spontaneous creativity at all hours: Late one dark night, guitarist and songwriter Abdallah brought by several striking female singers to record. Despite the late hour, a drowsy Romann obligingly cued up the backing tracks, and the women produced some of the delicate and powerful chorus parts that feature prominently on the album.

Tinariwen also insisted they strike out into the wilderness surrounding Tessalit to record in some of the rocky valleys and windswept plateaus dear to Tinariwen’s hearts. Following the lead of Ibrahim, Romann captured the band’s sound in places Ibrahim and other members had discovered over the course of many years playing in the desert, capturing a vibe that Romann feels is “just in the air” of this corner of the Sahara.

The air around Tessalit is rife with something akin to the blues, what Tuaregs call “assuf,” a word so complex it’s next to impossible to translate. Yet ask Tinariwen what they play, and they’ll likely reply that they play assuf. It’s more than a style of music; it’s deep personal longing, loneliness, and nostalgia that haunts the once mighty Tuareg, who have been increasingly marginalized over the past two centuries. Assuf reflects everything outside the companionship of the campfire, the eerie world of the spirits, the forlorn darkness of the desert at night.

Yet it’s the lonesome desert blues and the defiant pride of the Tuaregs that unite the diverse creative personalities of the band. Tinariwen, now with two generations of members, is a band of songwriters, each with their own take on Tuareg music, be it the rapid-fire, rap-like incantations of traditional male poetry that open the bluesy “Tenhert” or the traditionally female drum circles of the tindé that pulse behind the anthemic “Kel Tamashek.” Though longtime companions, Tinariwen’s members reveal different facets of the desert’s fertile possibilities.

Take Ibrahim, the band’s founder, creative leader, prolific songwriter, and guitar master. Though he had only seen guitars in Western movies shown at bush cinemas, he built his own as a child from wire and watercans (echoed on the album cover, a chance photo of children taken near the latest recording session). This ingenuity served him well as a refugee in a Libyan camp, where he first rallied with his companions to fight for Tuareg freedom across Mali and Niger, experiences chronicled in songs like “Imidiwan Afrik Temdam” and “Tenalle Chegret.” Now, still sleeping on occasion in a traditional tent at the center of his Tessalit compound, he pleads the case of the Tuareg youth (“Chabiba”) and puts his royalties where his mouth is, supporting a local café and other youth-oriented projects.

Or take the troubled yet wildly inspired Mohammed Ag Itlale, who goes by the nickname Japonais due to his almost Asian looks. Known as the greatest Tamashek poet of his generation, his tempestuous life has sparked deeply personal meditations like “Tamodjerazt Assis,” where he sings bitterly that regret is like a termite, eating the heart from the inside, a harsh yet elegant simile reflecting the poetic depths of traditional Tamashek verse.

Or Abdallah Ag Lamida, dubbed “Intidao,” one of the younger generation, who spends his time travelling from village to village visiting friends and family when not playing with the band. His passionate concern for social causes echoes Tinariwen’s long commitment to change and improvement in their community, and his condemnation of the widespread unemployment and apathy plaguing his people resounds on “Imazeghen N Adagh.”

Or Alhassane Ag Touhami (“Hassan”), whose fierce spirit as a guerilla fighter earned him the youthful moniker of “Lion of the Desert”—though he now scoffs modestly at this nom de guerre—and whose songs, like “Ere Tasfata Adounia,” have taken on a serious philosophical bent, contemplating the value of life and loss.

“At the end of the rebellion, we saw that violence only hurt people and spread death. But we knew we needed to make people aware of our culture. Our music was born out of suffering and that made it political,” Hassan recalls. The guerillas became guitarists, at first playing music so politically charged that simply owning a Tinariwen cassette could get fans arrested.

“Now,” Hassan continues, “we want to show the world what is here in the desert and show the Tuareg people more of the world, so that we can change and grow.” And they continue to bring the sounds of the world—from Bob Dylan to Bob Marley—to the desert, recently turning to filesharing via cell phones, Bluetooth, and battered computer speakers where they once traded worn cassettes.

For Ibrahim, companionship (a rough translation of the album title, Imidiwan) is about more than the gang of youngsters he grew up with or the close bonds he shares with Tinariwen’s musicians, with other Tuaregs who endured exile, or with the Tessalit community. “I am not just talking about the Tamashek,” Ibrahim explains. “I’m talking about Malians, people from Niger, about my friends from all over Africa. And all the friends we’ve made around the world who have helped us.”

These companions have heard the group’s message of pride, loss, and longing. On a more global scale, Tinariwen see themselves as desert-criers, messengers transmitting the true image—both good and bad—of their beloved home to those who will listen.

“You hear so many lies about the desert. People need to come and see what things are really like. And the more who come, the better,” Ibrahim smiles. Listening to the sounds of the oasis and rocky barrens that echo on Imidiwan may be the next best thing.

<< release: 10/13/09 >>