Come to the Water

Tinariwen – Aman Iman: Water is Life
Tinariwen

Aman Iman: Water is Life (World Village 468067, 2007)

I first saw Mali’s Tinariwen live in April of last year, at the Houston International Festival. When they first took the stage and began to play, there couldn’t have been more than a dozen people paying any attention. I wanted to run out beyond the immediate area and implore more festival goers to high-tail it over to where Tinariwen was getting under way, but I didn’t need to.

Their hypnotic desert blues sound was like a muezzin calling the faithful. Waves of people of all kinds began walking away from nearby attractions and towards the entrancing jangly guitar rhythms and raw vocals. Following the band’s low-key but gripping performance, I heard a big guy in a cowboy hat remark "damn, that was f—ing great" as he strode over to the table where Tinariwen’s two CDs were for sale.

I’m pleased to report that their new disc (to be released March 20th) will likely prompt the same sort of response from that Texan gent. It certainly did from me. The Tinariwen style- characterized by throbbing, pulsating guitar, bass and percussion riffs, hand claps and vocals that call and respond with a vibe that’s equal parts soulful, anguished and mystical -is so grittily unspoiled and unpretentious that listeners from Timbuktu to Texas have embraced it. And the band’s musical chops were born out of a true spirit of rebellion that their heritage as nomadic Tuaregs necessitated. Marginalized and oppressed first by French colonizers and then by Mali’s post-independence government, the Tuareg people haven’t had an easy go.

Tinariwen’s potent music and fighting stance may have earned them the respect of notables like Robert Plant and Carlos Santana, but their quest for full cultural identity in their homeland as well as new-versus-old-ways struggle within the Tuareg community continues. It’s a long story that doesn’t deserve to be made short, but allow me to get back to Tinariwen’s new album Aman Iman: Water is Life. It’s their best yet, and following the excellence of their first two (The Radio Tisdas Sessions and Amassakoul) that’s no faint praise.

The songs are thickly entwined, crisp bursts that are not only stunning in their slow-burning attack but perfectly realized blends of electric and acoustic strains, of connections between West Africa and the blues, of connections between West Africa and the Arabic lands to the east.

Most of the tracks waste no time in going for full-on trance effect, while a few ("Ahimana," "Imidiwan Winakalin") build up like back porch or back country church testimonials before hooking you in completely.

Producer Justin Adams (guitarist in Robert Plant’s band and Saharan music enthusiast) gives it all a richness that avoids gloss, enhancing additions like the Gnawa-style percussion on "Tamatant Tilay" to precisely the right level.

Aman Iman already stands as one of the best releases of 2007 and will certainly still be at year’s end. If you had the good sense to purchase this band’s first two, then by all means get this one also. If Tinariwen is new to you, try starting with this one and working your way back. And while you’re at it, check into the music of similar-sounding (and similarly great) bands such as Tartit and Etran Finatawa.

Buy Aman Iman: Water is Life.

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