Foreign Yet Familiar
The Saharan Desert conjures up a wealth of images: searing heat, undulating sand dunes, a bright blue sky that goes on forever. But it also harbors a few secrets, and one of the best is the Tuareg band Tinariwen. If you haven’t heard of them, that’s OK, but Bono, Thom Yorke and Henry Rollins are all fans and the group has made appearances at the Coachella and Roksilde festivals, so it might just be a matter of time before this eclectic bunch is known worldwide.
Formed in Libyan refugee camps in the early ’80s, then later in Mali, Tinariwen is a band unlike any other. Because of the nomadic lifestyle of the Tuaregs, Tinariwen has an ever-changing cast of musicians who come and go, but remain ever devoted to their unique sound. They sing in Tamashek and play unique instruments such as the lute, imzad and tindé drum, yet have been influenced by artists such as Dire Straits, Santana and Bob Dylan, all of which are distinctively heard on their latest album Tassili.
Whatever bands have influenced Tinariwen though, the originality shines through with the vocals. The vocals are not in English and are distinctively cultural, which might not gel well with some rigid listeners. But this authenticity is what has Tinariwen standing out. With songs like “Imidiwan Ma Tenna,” you are lulled into any plucked blues meets Western structure, until the singing kicks in and you know this isn’t any ordinary, Westernized band. It’s familiar yet different, effortless yet complex. “Wall Illa” is a beautifully simplistic track with soothing melodies and hushed voices over a quiet air of melancholy. The hand-clapping “Aden Osamnat” shimmers with Mark Knophler-worthy guitar riffs and moody picking, playing subtly against the moving harmonies.
Tinariwen is a very unique and interesting band, and though the cultural stylings of Tassili won’t appeal to everyone, there is no denying the mass of talent in the album and in the nomadic musicians who bring their exotic take on rock n’ roll to the world. If you’re open-minded enough to give Tassili a go, you’ll be instantly transported to a haunting yet cheery place as bright and mysterious as the Sahara itself.