First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2009, Volume 16, #11
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Mon November 23, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
More than two decades have passed since Ali Farka Toure first introduced Western society to the sound of the desert blues. At the time, the lonely evocative mood created by his guitar’s stuttering, loping wail sent a ripple through the world music community. In response, writers began to believe that the missing link between the blues and African music finally had been found.
Yet, when I talked with him in 1988, Toure dismissed all of the prevailing theories about the African roots of the blues form. Toure’s reticence about the subject convinced me that he simply loved to play his guitar. He wasn’t really interested in anyone’s conjecture about the place from which his music emerged. As a result, I essentially put my ideas to rest for the better part of two decades. It is, after all, easy to believe that perhaps Westerners merely have a need to make clever and tidy connections that exist only to force all of the world’s music to fit neatly together in a harmonious ecosystem of sound. In spite of what he had said, though, it is increasingly apparent that the way in which Toure heard and played music had far deeper roots than his professed love for John Lee Hooker. Tinawiren erases any doubts that this is true.
Like Toure, the members of Tinariwen hail from Mali, and the same sorts of blues-inflected grooves that permeated the elder guitarist’s work can also be heard drifting through the younger ensemble’s songs. Imidiwan: Companions is Tinariwen’s third, full-length endeavor, and it is safe to say that it is the group’s best outing yet. It also affirms that the glowing press received by the outfit over the past few years has been well deserved. Without a doubt, Tinariwen has earned its place at the forefront of the desert music scene that has erupted in recent years.
In contrast to Toure, Tinariwen is more forthcoming about the roots of its music. The musicians proudly attest that their songs are a celebration of the vanishing Tuareg culture that still exists in pockets around northwestern Africa. Yet, they’d be the first to admit that they are not purists. Although it certainly is easy to hear echoes of traditional Islamic music within Tinariwen’s work, the outfit also credits Led Zeppelin as a major influence. In turn, Led Zeppelin has never made a secret of the sway that African and Arabic sounds have held over its compositions. So, when Robert Plant visited Mali a few years ago to play with Tinariwen, the convergence of cultures was revelatory. Together, the artists created music that was neither western nor Islamic. Instead, it was a joyous synthesis of styles.
While some context is certainly helpful in appreciating the group’s output, it is equally true that Tinariwen is an important band no matter how one approaches its work. The collective follows a groove-based approach, and from the confluence of its influences as well as the dynamic interplay among the diverse members of the band, a sound emerges that is magical and unique. The loping, up-and-down rhythms suggest caravans of camels making their way across the desert. Yet, there also is a sense of lonely, nostalgic yearning that flows through the music, painting images of a culture that is struggling to maintain its identity against the pressures it faces from the outside world.
Throughout Imidiwan: Companions, Tinariwen creates a type of music that is as distinctive as the 12-bar blues or a roots-reggae rhythm. As it often occurs when one is first introduced to these forms, the untrained ear may complain of the similarities among the outfit’s songs, but this quickly dissipates through repeated exposure to Tinariwen’s work. With some perseverance, it is revealed that the underlying beat is nothing more than a template, one that carries the potential for an infinite number of improvisational variations. The sonic shapes shift between easiness and tension — sometimes within the same musical phrase. The dominant rhythm insistently propels the song forward, yet there is a calming spaciousness contained in each track’s center.
Unlike Tinariwen’s previous albums, Imidiwan: Companions was recorded on location in the Sahara. The group — along with engineer Jean-Paul Romann — repaired to a home in remote Tessalit, where it established a makeshift recording studio. From there, the ensemble made several forays into the desert at night to record the endeavor. The results are rough but immediate. The sonic deficiencies that exist from the way in which material was captured inevitably are overtaken by the expansiveness of the mood that Tinariwen captured. Imidiwan: Companions is as much a diary of people hanging out together as it is a collection of songs. It was recorded on the fly, and compositions were committed to tape as rapidly as they were spawned in bursts of inspiration.
Imidiwan: Companions may be the most intimate album to be issued this year. It is filled with campfire music of the highest order. Direct from the souls of the artists, the songs react and intermingle not only with the ever-present wind as it whistles through ancient stones but also with the seemingly endless skies and vistas of the desert at night. Imidiwan: Companions is a record that captures the battle between calm and restlessness that ensues in those who live and dream in such majestic desolation. Like the people who write them, Tinariwen’s music has a raw physicality. Its songs are sometimes taut and sinewy. At other moments, they are given a loose ambience that allows the listener to wander freely through the universes that are created by the melodies.
Imidiwan: Companions is a confident, unpretentious work. Whatever challenges have been posed by the onset of globalism to marginal cultures such as the Tuaregs, they are at least partially offset by the opportunity for people outside the Sahara to hear groups like Tinariwen. As proud and distinct in their identity as Rastafarian elders, Sufi mystics, and Hasidic Jews, these desert musicians ultimately enrich the world by making it a better, fuller, and more human place.
Of Further Interest...
Imidiwan: Companions is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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