Tinariwen: Imidiwan:Companions (World Village)

Tinariwen Desert bluesmen follow up a global success with quantity as well as quality

4 Stars

Time: CD  14 Tracks / 60 minutes
Time: DVD 30 minutes

It was never going to be easy following the sensational Aman Iman, the desert blues disc that cemented Tinariwen’s place at the top stratum of world music artists. That collection showed their shared ancestry with the American genre, featured some phenomenal grooves and glowed with a celebratory spirit, despite the sadness their music has about their Tuareg people’s loss of prestige.

On this follow-up, band-member Hassan says “Now 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.” 

In Imidiwan’s typically lush and informative booklet, there are several pages that describe ‘magic moments’ in the making of the disc. One recalls how guitarist Ibrahim was driving their 4×4 across the rocky desert, while putting on a battered cassette tape, and how Free Live came over the speakers. So yes, they have brought the West to their world, but this goes further in the other direction: it celebrates what they represent, and is an opportunity for the world to peer over their shoulders to watch a circle of companions as they casually sing their desert songs around the campfire.

This time, they eschewed the western studios of recent years and took equipment into the remote oasis of Tessalit. Like beach sand between your toes, desert dust and grit has got embedded in this music. There’s far less of Aman Iman‘s polish. The guitar work feels more roughly hewn, such as in “Lulla”. What you do still get is their trademark relentless deep groove, such as on the compelling hypno-blues-funk of “Tahult In” or on “Tenhert,” where Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni sprays a breathless AK47 verbal attack over a basic blues riff that later eases back to just a bass underlay. He is so fast that I have to smile.

Imidiwan: Companions comes with a memorable and sometimes stunningly directed DVD that shows clips of making the disc alongside wider background of the band. Because they come from rural Mali, this is no ordinary ‘making of’ documentary. We catch the lifestyle of the Tuareg people in the rich hues of sub-Saharan light. The film features battered teapots as if they were product placements. Over a mug of tea, we see one man telling two others about Tinariwen’s success. He says to think of the world as a ball, “There’s one side covered with water and the other with land,” he explains. “Tinariwen have played everywhere there’s land… in Australia, in Europe, in America. They’ve played on every continent… it’s proof that their music is universal.”

There is footage of the band recording in bare rooms, but more tellingly, out in the desert. They set up a circle of mics and amps in a flat place between huge rocks and boulders, and start to play. In the evening they are still there with warming fires burning in the middle. 

But even before seeing this, you can sense that personal feel. The intimacy of the music is striking if you play tracks like “Assuf Ag Assuf” or “Chabiba” first thing in the morning. The former’s background slide guitar makes it feel like a haunting Ry Cooder soundtrack to an  American road movie that’s littered with tumbleweed.

Three other highlights for me include the distinctive title track, a swaying, plaintive piece that aches with longing for their people to regain their fading sense of identity; “Imazeghen N Adfagh,” which features the beautiful unison female vocals that also set this release apart from its predecessor; and “Ere Tasfata Adounia,” a fantastic piece about the value of life with a speed change and where the resonant guitar is more understated – maybe this is one directly influenced by that Free Live cassette. (I wonder what Kossoff would have thought if someone had told him, “Just as American bluesmen have inspired you to make your distinctive sound, you will inspire some camel-riding desert bluesmen thirty-odd years after you die”…)
Original producer Jean Paul Romann has caught a vibrant, authentic virtually drum-free sound that is driven by chiming guitars, occasional chunky bass, handclaps and timeless voices of Africa. The DVD shows 4x4s driving alongside camels, and this music beautifully captures that mix of two worlds, as a gritty Tinariwen plays to the pace of the desert.

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