n order to collapse some of the distance between us—us in the most general, English-speaking, Western-world sense—and the music of North/Western Africa, we lean on guitars, because guitars, we know those things, they conduct god-like invention through select fingers, belch rebellion, topple regimes, move the asses of youth, etc. But rather than perpetuate syntactical glosses like “Tinariwen are the Touareg’s answer to Crass or Sunburned Hand of the Man” because they started two decades ago as a group of political rebels or because they make loose, skewed blues music, I think about the vocals. Because it’s by vocals that we can count how many people are in Tinariwen. Or better said, it’s through vocals that we realize the number is shifting, uncountable. Guitars, so often an inroad for us to talk about individual genius, aren’t the crux of Tinariwen—especially not when you can focus on a gaggle of flat-voiced women ululating like they’re caught in a thresher.
History, though, is somewhat important, or at least relevant to the band’s sound. To call Tinariwen a Malian group would be accurate, but missing the big picture. Tinariwen are Touareg, a predominately Muslim ethnic group that populates a strip of Africa running from Burkina Faso, near the south end of the bubble-like region of Northwest Africa, up to coastal Lybia. Driven out by drought, ongoing political conflicts, and general joblessness, the guys who ended up forming Tinariwen found themselves looking for opportunity in Lybia during the early ’80s. Muammar al-Gaddafi (or Qadhafi), the de facto leader of Lybia for the past forty years, established Touareg camps supposedly designed to help foster Touareg independence, but in essence was amassing a bunch of wayward folks for involuntary military service. Clever.
It was in this climate that the men and women of Tinariwen started making music; the founding members gave up their arms as recently at 1996. To pander to the translations of Tamashek in the lyric book is to miss the obvious: these songs sound like they’re about collectivity, about holding out against larger powers, about home or homelessness. The rhythms are loping, mid-tempo, and incredibly deliberate, an anchor to balloons of worried guitar notes and walls of fluttering vocals (those vocals!)—Tinariwen’s particular brand of trance (and this stuff is devastatingly trancey) isn’t inert, but relies on the push-pull of percussive rhythms against melodic ones, a reminder that trance about indulging the momentum of energy of it, not about flogging and caging it.
And I bring up guitars contra vocals because there’s not even a quiver of Western transcendence on here, no matter how hard folks try to market the band as some divined, desert-mystic rock ’n’ roll godhead. Even though the album was recorded in Mali’s capital of Bamako and not under an endless blanket of stars in the Sahara, these are campfire songs, droning and ebullient. Discounting 15 years of boom box tapes, Aman Iman is only Tinariwen’s third album. It would be hard to call 2001’s The Radio Tisdas Sessions an album proper; it was a coming-out party. And 2004’s Amassakoul was strong, but there’s something unerringly simple about Aman Iman that sinks, almost immediately, as a phenomenally honest album. The music doesn’t assimilate, which is great; with releases from Tinariwen and the similar-sounding Tartit and Etran Finatawa in the last eight months, North and West African music is reaching a point where we can parse it for how it feels—how it shouts, blisters, and hums—not for how many American bluesmen we can lamely compare it to.