Thursday, February 18, 2010

A revolution in the northern Sahara - Tinariwen

I have to confess that I don’t know much about Mali and its political history, nor about the role that Tuareg nomads have played in that history, but I have read enough to know that it has been a tortured and painful history, where people have been displaced, and where struggles for a home have been fought on the land of one of the poorest countries on the planet.

The life of the nomad was the life of the warrior, a life that endured struggles to survive alongside struggles against exploitation and the co-option into Libya’s own political agenda.

It is in this troubled context that Tinariwen began to form in the late 70s, a band of young Tuareg men who, along with their heartfelt identity with the deserts of the Sahara, felt inspired by the music of the West, of Africa, of Algeria, of Morocco. And so, oscillating between their job as soldiers for Gadaffi, and their job as musicians for the displaced Tuareg people of Mali, they began to develop their own unique musical identity – nomadic, cosmopolitan, revolutionary and indigenously African.

But despite their tumultuous beginnings, the musicians of Tinariwen tend to shun their image of gun-toting musicians, and instead see themselves as musicians first and foremost. But they are musicians with a warrior history and, of course, their music, like all music, is the child of their culture, and of the political context out of which it grew. And so, inevitably, there is the music of the warrior here, as much as there is the music of the desert. This is what comes to us via their most recent release, their album Imidiwan.

But it’s not so much music that is openly rebellious, not music that is there to rally the masses to revolution, but rather music where revolution, and the struggle against oppression, is part of its essence, part of what makes it what it is, so that when a song like ‘Tahult In’ (My Salutation) salutes the anonymous revolutionaries, it does so to a steady pulse, like blood flowing through the veins, much more than blood being spilt on the battlefield.

The music’s spiritual flavour is there from its opening moments, in the gentle, welcoming flow of ‘Imidiwan Afrik Temdam’ (My friends from all over Africa). But they are revolutionary words, and it’s as if the revolution is being offered here as a place of community, a place of comfort and hope.

You can smell the Saharan desert dust swell around you all throughout this album, but cultural boundaries are always being crossed here, too, and rock and blues are never far away. Listen, for example to, ‘Tenhert’ (The Doe), with it strong blues/rock guitar riffs, or to the bluegrass plucking guitars against African vocals in ‘Intitlayaghen’, or to the almost Middle Eastern drone flanking African drums in ‘Kel Tamashek’ (The Tamashek People).

Tinariwen means “deserts”. It’s a plural word, and that’s an important thing to remember when you listen to this music – music that grows out of a multicultural history and looks to pluralistic future.

The music of Tinariwen is spirited, optimistic music – music that celebrates the freedom it strives for, music that can find a sort of universality of community in its own embrace of so many cultural influences.

But it is also music that ultimately cannot escape the struggle that always lies beneath it, around it, and in it and nowhere is this more poignant and haunting than in the hidden extra track that appears after the final ‘Ere Tasfata Adounia’ (He who values life) has finished – a quiet, contemplative instrumental track that seems to conjure up images of a desert that has been forsaken, but that still lies in wait for its people to return to it.

Imidiwan means “companions” – or perhaps “comrades” would be a more apt word for this music that reaches out an arm to you, that welcomes you like you have come home and ultimately makes you feel that you are already a part of the ranks of its revolution.

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