First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2007, Volume 14, #12
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Thu December 6, 2007, 06:00 AM CST
There must be something in the desert of Mali that gives musicians the blues. When Ali Farka Toure released his first album for the World Circuit label almost two decades ago, he sounded like the missing link between John Lee Hooker and a desert griot, thus causing a music journalist I know to threaten to quit his day job in order to write a book about the blues highway that stretches between Timbuktu and the Mississippi delta. As far fetched as this might seem, it is a compelling thesis. After repeatedly listening to Tinariwen’s sophomore effort Aman Iman, it’s easy to understand why many believe that the music whose genesis often is attributed to men like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell actually may have come from a more ancient source.
As it turns out, history and culture rarely follow a straight line. In a conversation that I had with Ali Farka Toure in 1988, he bemusedly told me that his sound was influenced by listening to John Lee Hooker records that his friends had bought while traveling abroad. He also stated that, as far as he knew, the blues that he loved was American and not African in origin. Similarly, after being exposed to the groups while undergoing military training in Algeria, the members of Tinariwen cite both Santana and Led Zeppelin as sources of their inspiration.
To make the elliptical nature of this music’s creation even more interesting, Aman Iman was recorded and produced by Justin Adams, the guitarist in Strange Sensation, Robert Plant’s current band. Plant and Adams originally met the members of Tinariwen in North Africa four years ago, when they attended an annual Tuareg musical gathering called the Festival in the Desert. During the event, both Plant and Adams joined Tinariwen and several other bands on stage. Musical alliances were formed, and last year, Adams returned to Mali to spend a few weeks living and playing with the ensemble. The songs on Aman Iman are the result of this loose collective’s labor.
Collaborations such as this represent the most exciting direction for contemporary music to explore. Coming from an ancient, nomadic culture, the members of Tinariwen are creating art that is truly postmodern in nature. By re-imagining the current culture’s interpretation of a traditional musical form — that is, by commenting on the blues as envisioned by Led Zeppelin and Santana, who, in turn, were influenced by Moroccan and West African music — Tinariwen has blended ancient and contemporary sounds in a way that is truly captivating. While listening to Aman Iman, one intuitively can hear and comprehend that the exposure to Led Zeppelin songs such as Kashmir has had as much of an influence on Tinariwen as the traditional North African themes had on Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s compositions three decades earlier.
Tinariwen originally came together as a collective of musicians who traveled throughout the Sahara region to advocate Tuareg independence. They spread their musical and political messages by selling crude homemade tapes in a "cassette-to-cassette musical grapevine," and this process transformed them into rebel superstars. After listening to Aman Iman’s 12 spirited tracks, it is easy to understand why the group has attracted such a rabid following. Tinariwen’s music sounds less like traditional West African fare than that of many other artists such as Salif Keita and Habib Koite, both of whom also hail from Mali. While Tinariwen’s overall sound is quite unlike anything else being recorded today, one also can hear aspects of the traditional desert music of the Berber and Sufi traditions in each of the songs on the effort. Every tune on Aman Iman is compelling; the music is swirling and exotic, yet it also is grounded in an electric guitar-driven sound that serves as a guide and focal point for fans of Western-oriented material.
Records like Aman Iman represent the highpoint of cultural fusion. Unlike the approaches to Third-world soundscapes that have been taken by artists like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, Tinariwen is not appropriating sounds to suit its own compositions so much as it is re-calibrating and refitting a whole musical genre. This is rock, blues, high life, and traditional Tuareg music, all of which has been thrown into a blender in order to create something that simultaneously manages to sound familiar, yet completely new. Aman Iman — which translates to "water is life" — is an unselfconscious artistic triumph that undeniably points the way toward some very exciting, new musical territories.
Of Further Interest...
Aman Iman 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!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box