For all the media hype that has surrounded Tinariwen in recent years, their albums have remained a strictly cult concern. Aman Iman (Water Is Life) may just be the recording that changes this.
The story of Tinariwen is now well known in the western world, so suffice to say the group comprises nomadic Tuareg tribesmen who have been playing music since the early ’80s. Their first CD, The Radio Tisdas Sessions, was released in 2000 but it was a performance at the Festival In The Desert in Mali the following year that really propelled them into the spotlight.
Aman Iman is the follow-up to 2004’s Amassakoul, a release that had western critics slavering for superlatives. They will have to dream up a few more for the new album as it is another brilliant collection.
The opening track Cler Achel (I Spent The Day) encapsulates the Tinariwen experience to a tee. A lolloping, mid-tempo rhythm anchors the beat, while circular guitar notes and ululating call-and-response vocals push the song towards transcendence. A literal translation of the Tamashek lyrics reveals the song to be about the nomadic, displaced lifestyle of the Tuareg, but it is the music that tells the story more than anything.
Mano Dayak ably illustrates the parallels between western blues and African music, with the steady acoustic opening echoing the Delta sound popularised in America at the start of the last century. The astonishing vocal interplay between the male lead and female chorus that drives the second half of the song steers the music away from the primal drive of the blues towards the intense energy of trance.
There are hints of free-form jazz in this heady mix as well, with Matadjem Yinmixan (Why All This Hate Between You) establishing an addictive beat that allows the electric guitars the range to indulge in melodic flights of fancy.
Producer Justin Adams, one of the unsung heroes of the so-called contemporary world music scene, plays his part on Aman Iman. The recording has a clarity and spontaneity that many rock bands would do well to emulate. There is no hint of volume manipulation or studio trickery here, just the sound of an almost telepathically connected group of musicians losing themselves in the transcendence of their music.
The hints of rock influence that permeated Amassakoul are more fully established on Aman Iman. Awa Didjen and Assouf utilise wah-wah pedals and distortion in a manner redolent of late-period Jimi Hendrix (whether or not the group have ever actually listened to his music), but to Tinariwen’s credit this aspect of their sound is not overplayed to cater for western audiences.
Instead the listener is drawn to the eerie African blues of tracks such as Soixante Trois, Toumast and Ikyadarh Dim, which transcend language barriers to weave their message of displacement and rebellion through the force of the music alone.
Preaching a message as old as the blues in a manner that is uniquely African, Tinariwen are at the forefront of a new wave of artists emerging from that continent that rise above any tired old ‘world’ clichés. This is beautiful, transcendent music that creates its own genres.