Review of Tinariwen's album Imidiwan: Companions
Stories of remarkable courage, determination and steadfastness are so commonplace amongst African musicians that it's hard not to take them at face value. By any standards however, the origins of Tinariwen's formation are compelling enough to warrant admiration.
Condensed, the group consist of Tuareg tribespeople from northern Mali, who through circumstances found themselves gathering around a desire to inform fellow comrades about the revolutionary politics of their region in the late 1980's. Someday, a book will be written about them, but for now it's enough to say that Imidiwan is their second loosely speaking, 'Mainstream' album, following 2007's Aman Iman. Recorded in the backwater town of Tessalit in what counts as an African home studio - a mic-ed up adobe house - the band-cum-collective also produced segments in nearby bush locations in an attempt to capture the natural ambience of their remote surroundings.
At this point normally western critics are in a terrible rush to out-shower their peers in bestowing praise for the band's music, which is frequently compared to the delta blues sound of crossroads dwellers like Leadbelly and Robert Johnson. My own view for what it's worth is that caution should be exercised before jumping straight into Tinariwen's world. Those whose perceptions of African music that begin and end with Hugh Masekela, or if you prefer more recently Malians Amadou and Mariam, are going to find an alien landscape here, filled with slow-burning tempo and drone harmonies that bear a more accurate resemblance to field hollers. It is these kind of structures that those raised on western pop would probably fail to connect with.
As fascinating then as both Tinariwen's history and politics are, the band's quest for authenticity in the face of pressure to anglicise their sound is perceptionally either their most attractive charachteristic or an obvious Achilles heel. Imidiwan does at least prove however that our greatest patronisation of indigenous music - labelling it 'World' - still can't sterilise it's form, which in the face of 2009's anodyne pop seems like a pure antidote indeed.