Tinariwen: every album reviewed | Songlines
Friday, June 5, 2020

Tinariwen: every album reviewed

Since their debut album in 2001, the throbbing desert blues of the Touareg guitar band Tinariwen has conquered the musical world: here are reviews of all of their albums to date

Tinariwen-Marie-Planeille-Free.jpg

Tinariwen (photo: Marie Planelle)

The Radio Tisdas Sessions

(Wayward Records, 2002)

The raw original first album after a generation of home tape recordings, spreading across the Tamasheq culture by hand. This album was produced by Justin Adams and brought their music to the world.

Amassakoul

(Independent Records, 2004)

If world music success were calculated as remoteness of home territory divided by size of international audience, Tinariwen would be one of the biggest groups on the planet. This is due partly to the incredible media coverage of the Festival in the Desert, of which they are key founders, but also to the group's special visual and musical charisma. Displaced Touaregs from the Adrar of Iforas desert, the nine musicians deploy that most photogenic of combinations: desert robes and electric guitars.

The guitars, along with simple but perfect clapping, clacking percussion, rough male voices and ululating female ones, and the fierce, hypnotic quality of the traditional melodies, combine into one of the most devastatingly mean and low-down sounds to come out of Africa, a cousin of the sound pioneered in Europe by Ali Farka Toure. The rhythm of Touareg music, from a slow lope to a spirited canter, is often compared to the gait of a camel, and it’s difficult to get the image out of your mind; the male choruses start resembling shanties for the ships of the desert.

The self-composed lyrics of Tinariwen's songs concern struggle for cultural identity and are said to possess considerable poetry, but only to Tamashek speakers. No matter, the record (their second) is powerful, distinctive and, in an age of global fudge and fusion, both authentic and accessible. Philip Sweeney

Aman Iman: Water Is Life

(Independiente, 2007)

Tinariwen may be one of the hottest names in world music, with perhaps the most compelling back story of any band, yet I've always felt there was some crucial element missing from their music. While their last album, the well received Amassakoul, contained all the things for which their music has been routinely praised - driving rhythms, world-weary bluesiness, spacey Stratocaster licks - these elements failed to cohere in a really compelling way. Even live at the legendary third Festival in the Desert, Tinariwen didn't quite live up to the legend.

Well, whatever that missing element was, it's been jammed firmly into place on their third album. It all comes together with so much more bite and urgency than on their previous recordings. Producer Justin Adams must take a good share of the credit. There's an epic weight to the sound, the voices sounding commanding as well as spaced out by all that Saharan sun. There's a decisive thrust to the rhythms and a real southside Chicago dirtiness to those squirming electric guitar lines. The prominence of the female chorus, meanwhile, makes Tinariwen sound at times like their peers Tartit - which is absolutely no bad thing.

While the slow-burning 'Ahimana' has a wonderfully throaty vocal from longstanding member Japonais, and the all-acoustic 'Nak Assarhagh' has the feel of a deep-desert nocturnal jam, there is a certain interchangeability to some of the other tracks. But hell, that never stopped Oasis making a living. If you've never bought a Tinariwen album, make it this one. Mark Hudson

Imidiwan: Companions

(Independiente, 2009)

If Tinariwen were a conventional indie rock band, their fourth album might have been a difficult proposition. After finding an ‘underground’ following for their unique sound with their first two releases, 2007’s Aman Iman represented their big-time crossover bid for the mainstream – a new deal with a high profile label, heavyweight support from Bono to Radiohead, mainstream press, support gigs with the Rolling Stones and showcases at the world’s biggest rock festivals, from Glastonbury to Coachella.

But while their record label has been busily plotting how to take them to the next level with focus groups, retail strategies, marketing campaigns and radio pluggers, Tinariwen simply went back to their desert village to record the follow-up in sessions driven not by the pressurised, time-is-money, hit-single demands of the Western music industry, but by the daily rhythms of Touareg life. The result is their deepest, hardest and most dramatic set of desert blues to date, as the tribal ambience of field recording meets digital high-definition and their snaking electric guitars and mesmerising traditional percussion are made to sound as deep and clear as the purest water from the most profound of ancient wells. Songs such as ‘Imidiwan Afrik Tendam’, ‘Tenhert’ and ‘Tamudjeras Assis’ sound both mysterious and accessible at the same time, and they exceed – and supersede – anything Tinariwen have recorded before. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib is now without doubt the most exciting rock’n’roll guitarist in the world. Nigel Williamson

Tassili

(V2/Co-Op, 2011)

Once Tinariwen became indie rock’s favourite African act, it was probably only a matter of time before they recorded their ‘crossover’ album. Enter members of cool American rock bands Wilco and TV On The Radio, and the New Orleans horns of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to assist our Touareg heroes. The relentless demand for musical growth, in which it is a cardinal sin to make an album that sounds the same as its predecessor, is, one suspects, a specifically Western obsession. Left to their own devices, most African musicians place more store on tradition and once they’ve found their groove, it takes a lot to get them to mess with it. So how does this play out on Tinariwen’s fifth album? Well, they still sound splendid but throughout you can hear the influence of a Western record company, filtering the raw earthiness of African desert blues for a Western rock audience. The opener, ‘Imidiwan Ma Tenam’, offers a classic Tinariwen template, but with layers of ambient background noise added by Wilco’s Nels Cline. ‘Tenere Taqqim Tossam’ starts with a familiar loping Touareg rhythm, but it is gradually smoothed-out to become an exercise in African-tinged indie, complete with over-tasteful vocals in English from members of TV On The Radio.

Even without the American presence, there’s another significant change, too, for the electric guitars have been much muted in favour of an acoustic, around-the-campfire sound. ‘Ya Messinagh’ is a moody acoustic jam with jazzy, funereal New Orleans brass grafted on to its Touareg spine. The acoustic guitars on ‘Walla Illa’ tinkle sweetly like Nick Drake or early Donovan, with the lead vocal in Tamasheq supported by cooing backing vocals, the cultural origins of which lie in California rather than the Sahara. There’s no denying the appeal of Tinariwen’s heavily tweaked new sound. But many may decide they prefer the more unadulterated approach of earlier albums. Nigel Williamson

Emmaar

(V2 Records, 2014)

Those who saw Tinariwen at the Songlines Music Awards 2012 Winners’ Concert at the Barbican at the end of 2012 witnessed a subdued, austere performance. That was no surprise, given that their homeland in northern Mali was in the grip of Islamist extremists who had banned all forms of music. Their new album exudes the same solemnity, recorded in the Californian desert, the band in exile due to continued ‘political instability in their country,’ as the PR blurb with the CD starkly reminds us. In the same week the album arrived came the news that two French journalists had been kidnapped and executed in the band’s hometown of Kidal. In the face of this ongoing tragedy, Emmaar opens mournfully with the slow desert blues of ‘Toumast Tincha’, with lyrics such as ‘the ideals of the people have been sold cheap,’ and ‘peace imposed by force is bound to fail.’ The mood gets no lighter and although the pulse quickens briefly on the urgent-sounding ‘Chaghaybou,’ it’s soon back to the sombre laments. The snaking guitar solos are muted and the rhythms stern; at times the austerity seems almost suffocating. The darkest, densest and most difficult album of Tinariwen’s career. Nigel Williamson

Live in Paris

(Wedge Records, 2015)

For a while, it seemed that the world’s favourite desert blues sultans had lost their swing. Their performance at the Songlines Music Awards concert in 2012 coincided with the Islamist uprising in northern Mali and found them in understandably subdued and sombre mood. Thankfully, as better news emerged from back home, their groove and vitality returned; a 130-date world tour in 2014 found them back at their best. Recorded on the tour’s final night, this live set finds them in celebratory form, their chops tight and road-toned and their performance fired by happy anticipation of an imminent return to their desert home. Drawing mostly on their most recent studio album Emmaar, the stinging guitar lines and camel-gaited rhythms rock with a heft that gets more thunderous as the set proceeds, spiced by the previously unrecorded blues lament ‘Azawad’ and a trio of exotic interventions by the 75-year-old Touareg poet, singer and matriarch Lalla Badi, ululating deliriously in the centuries-old traditional desert style known as tindé. Nigel Wiliamson

Elwan

(Wedge Records, 2017)

The seventh album from the world’s favourite Touareg rockers is an album of both power and poignancy. It’s a tale of two deserts: like its predecessor, Emmaar, parts were recorded in the Californian desert of Joshua Tree National Park while in exile from the Islamist troubles in northern Mali; then the band reconvened for a further session at an oasis in southern Morocco, near the Algerian frontier. The US tracks, such as the bluesy ‘Nannuflày’ with its massed guitars and the cranked-up ‘Sastànàqqam’, rock as hard as anything the band has ever recorded, bolstered by the presence of American alt-rock luminaries such as Kurt Vile, guitarist Matt Sweeney and Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees.

If those recordings provide the power, the Moroccan sessions bring the poignancy. Accompanied by a local group of Berber Gnawa trance musicians, tracks such as ‘Talyat’ and the acoustic ‘Assàwt’ are looser and more visceral, yet still uncompromising in their intensity. To these ears Emmaar was something of a disappointment, its sombre, vaguely dispirited tone suggesting that the band had been badly knocked by the violent upheavals in Mali. On Elwan, their spirit burns as indomitably as ever. Nigel Williamson

Amadjar

(Wedge/PIAS, 2019) 

Following the takeover of their homeland in northern Mali by militant Islamists in 2012, Tinariwen recorded their last two albums in the US. Both contained some fine and often rather sombre music, but severed from their desert roots, something didn’t quite seem right. The change in the dynamic may have been small but it was perceptible – and it was hard not to conclude that the pain of loss and separation had resulted in a diminution of their fiery Touareg pride and passion. Tinariwen sensed it, too, and to record Amadjar they returned to the desert, working up their new songs under the Saharan stars on a 12-day journey across Morocco and Mauritania and then recording them in a large tent pitched near Nouakchott. There they were joined by Noura Mint Seymali and her guitarist husband Jeiche Ould Chigaly and additional instrumentation was later overdubbed by a bunch of Western indie rockers. The outside contributions are valuable, particularly the droning violin of the Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis on ‘Tenere Maloulat’ and the mandolin of Micah Nelson from Neil Young’s band adds a sparkling texture to ‘Anina’. But it is essentially ornamentation, for at the core of the record is the soul and dignity of Tinariwen, restored to their natural milieu and back to their best, from the intense blues-rock of ‘Zawal’ to the more playful rhythms of ‘Taqkal Tarha’ via the timeless acoustic majesty of the closing track ‘Lalla’. Nigel Williamson

Subscribe from only £49.50 per year

Start your journey and discover the very best music from around the world.

Subscribe

View the Current
Issue

Take a peek inside the latest issue of Songlines magazine.

Find out more