In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to worry about the plight of people living marginal existences due to their race, creed and colour. But we don’t live in an ideal world and people in every country of the world who aren’t part of the mainstream culture are still fighting for rights that most of us take for granted. One of the problems of us lumping people together as “Arabs” or “Africans” is that we don’t bother to differentiate between the various people who live in those parts of the world, and they just become anonymous masses instead of the distinct nations they truly are.
One country could contain upwards of ten cultural groups who have been crammed within an artificial boundary created by a colonial power’s land grab of the 1800’s. In worst-case scenarios, this can result in the mass genocide of Rwanda. But in other countries minority people are dieing out just as surely from neglect and indifference. To our eyes they may look like the same people but the reality is something altogether different.
Such is the case for nomadic Tuareg people who reside in what is now the African country of Mali. Pictures of the environment they live in show a high, hard blue sky stretching for miles until meeting the edge of the equally hard, sun baked ground. Looking at this sort of arid and desolate landscape you wonder how a small lizard could survive let alone people. But the Tuareg were here before Mohammad brought his message from Allah and still hold to many of their old beliefs.
From hardship they say great art is born, and music especially is a great vehicle for expressing the hopes, aspirations, and anger of a people. So it’s not surprising to find a group of Tuareg who sing about the plight of their people. What might be a surprise is the sound the band Tinariwen creates behind the lyrics of defiance. The biggest shock isn’t that they use electric guitars (although maybe it should be, because there aren’t that many places in a tent for plugging in an amp) as many groups from Africa make use of them now, but how they utilize them might come as a surprise.
In the 1970’s when most of the members of the band were coming of age the music they heard most of us was Robert Plant and Santana. When one of the band’s leaders Ibrahim Ag Alhabib was receiving military training in Algeria the only music he heard was from those two vastly different guitar players. So when he returned he brought back two sounds that he wanted to recreate.
Listening to their latest album Aman Iman (Water Is Life), released on the World Village Music, I’d be hard pressed to tell you what sound was a Santana like sound and which was a Robert Plant riff. Maybe those of you more familiar with Plant will recognize stuff but it was beyond me.
But that's not the point; the point is that their music sounds quite unlike anything else you'll have heard come from any part of Africa. The guitar is shorter and sharper and far less melodic and cheery then on the more familiar Nigerian pop sound, or the dance music of South Africa. They've taken the instruments of the pop world and welded them to the realities of nomadic life. The guitars are used as a sharp rhythmic counterpoint to the muted sounds of the hide drums that are the pulse beneath everything else.
Overtop of this is the sound of their voices, singing and talking in the language of the Tuaregs. In fact for the first time ever the lyrics on a Tuareg 's album are written out in their script, tifinar characters, along with phonetic transliterations into Roman script and an English translation. The sparse lyrics tell the story of a harsh life in exile and a desire to be at home but only with a degree of independence that may not be possible.
The music is emotionally charged, an effect that is only heightened by the traditional vocals of the female singer of the group who will on occasion raise her voice in the woman's cry that we often associate with the desert tribes. I don't know about anyone else but that sound can still send chills up my spine in the worst – or best – way.
It's not often that we get to hear music that's uniquely individual anymore; most stuff is going to sound like something we've heard before. In the case of this latest release by Tinariwen Aman Iman the album comes the nearest to being as completely new and unique an experience as I've had musically in a long time. Do yourself a favour and listen to something different today – at the least it will help you realize again just how much potentially great music remains unearthed all over the world.
(Originally posted November 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.