Based in Mali, the group Tinariwen is not only from the desert, they are the desert. Tinariwen ("empty places") is less of a "band" than a familial collective of Tuareg culture, a nomadic people who inhabit the far regions of the Sahara, spanning from west to east of Northern Africa, connected with the Tamashek language. Tinariwen's songs, first widely available with the release of their CD debut, The Radio Tisdas Sessions, are stories and poems of identity, struggles, battles, connections to landscape and convictions. Set to their unique form of music -- a blend of traditional folksongs, contemporary African, Western rock, R&B and blues -- the result is extraordinary.
After gaining a global following from hand-passed cassettes, the band has become a world music phenomenon. Started in a Libyan rebel camp, Tinariwen is led by charismatic guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, with members young and old contributing songs, vocals, percussion, a backing chorus and guitar work. Guitars -- electric and acoustic -- are front and center, often layered and intricately woven. For their fourth release, Imidiwan ("Companions"), Tinariwen decided to record in and around Alhabib's birthplace -- Tessalit, Mali -- often setting up microphones and recording equipment in the middle of the Sahara desert.
They've scaled back from the more elaborate production of their 2007 release, Aman Iman ("Water Is Life"). Working primarily with producer/engineer Jean-Paul Romann, who also worked with the group on the 2002 release, The Radio Tisdas Sessions, Tinariwen has successfully crafted a record that incorporates the subtle sounds of a culture and environment. But it's the group's musicianship, seasoned by over 700 live performances internationally, that marks the significant difference between Imidiwan and the earlier sessions, recorded in a small radio station studio. The songs here are executed with a strong sense of confidence, swagger and swing.
The title track "Imidiwan Afrik Tendam" ("My Friend From Over All Africa") opens the record with a welcoming, celebratory chant set to a warm, mid-tempo groove. It doesn't exactly prepare the listener for the complex swirl of the upbeat "Lulla." Led by Alhabib, "Lulla" layers numerous rhythms, from handclaps to the guitars to amazing bass underpinnings (from Arabic scholar Eyadou Ag Leche, whose musical presence is felt throughout the record), all intersecting at a dizzying pace. "Tenhert" ("The Doe") with guitarist/vocalist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni in the lead, is part spoken-word (adapted from an ancient poem by Mohammed Assori Ahmed), with a rising melodic chorus enveloped in a heavy John Lee Hooker-like riff.
Arguably Tinariwen's finest recording to date, Imidiwan is an intimate, intricate and a thoroughly enjoyable record that encourages the attentive listener to investigate a larger Tuareg culture. "We open a door on the desert world to help the Tuareg culture evolve," said elder founding member Alhassane Ag Touhami in a recent Mojo interview. Powerful recordings like Imidiwan just may nudge a Western culture to follow suit.