Tinariwen Aman Iman: Water is Life

[World Village; 2007]

Styles: “world” (blech), African protest music, African fusion blues
Others: Ali Farka Touré, Fela Kuti, Choubi Choubi Folk and Pop compilation

Tinariwen is a Touareg troupe that formed in Ghaddafi’s refugee camps in the early 1980s. Since that time, it has served as the musical shelter for an amorphous collective of musicians and lyricists, both housing and sharing a distinctive brand of nomadic protest blues. Aman Iman: Water is Life, the group’s third studio album, reflects the group’s current good fortune in its sleek packaging. Their story unfolds from a pretty digipak with glossy photos and a romantic portrait written by Robert Plant’s guitarist, Justin Adams (the album’s producer). The music it annotates sounds no less hungry and raw, despite the clarity of the recordings (starkly different from the battered cassette tapes on which the group’s first songs circulated among dispersed Touareg communities). The songs exude a dusky pathos that channels the forlorn, dirty crunch of American blues without diluting the sinuous energy of more traditional Touareg music. Handclaps are the primary source of percussion and the vocals are shared in a call-response pattern, the second half of which comes from a boisterous chorus more concerned with verve than pitch. Fuzzy, ochrous polyrhythms surround trebly guitar solos whose notes never stagnate, thanks to the constant bends and slides that evoke the melismatic vocal technique often recognized as “Middle Eastern” by Western ears. Tinariwen surround the listener with the suffering and celebration of their troubled community, and this surrounding yields a paradoxical and bittersweet form of transportation. It’s a melding of the familiar and the exotic: the tools of blues achieve the ends of gospel within their own East African context.

I recommend burrowing into Aman Iman : Water is Life through multiple listens with the lyric sheet close at hand. 1 The subtleties of their tonal and emotional textures manifest themselves gradually over time. Any group this adept at contrasts of mood and content deserves careful attention. A bright, propulsive number like “Tamatant Tilay” bears the message “Death is here, she’s counting the days” while other equally limber songs speak of the disappearance of the Tamashek language, the abandonment of families, or simply the lack of water in the desert. Thanks to such heartfelt topicality, Tinariwen’s music refracts recent political strife in the Eastern Sahara while also serving as an example of fruitful reciprocity between Western and African musics (like that between James Brown and Fela Kuti in the '70s). I find encouraging the recent support Tinariwen has garnered from such icons as Plant, Santana, and Thom Yorke and the influence the group has brought to bear on the music of these artists in turn. Rather than having to wait for inclusion on a Soul Jazz comp of the future, Tinariwen are getting their (full-length) due here and now. Theirs is a story (and a sound) worth exploring.

1The lyrics are one of the highlights of the album. Not only is the poetry spare and striking, it’s printed in English, phonetic Tamashek, and tinifar, the alphabet of the Touareg (which can also be seen on the cover). Foreign listeners are thus accommodated without diminishing the special character (and characters) of the music and the culture that produces it. It’s refreshing to see such conscientious management of this group’s complicated identity.

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