Of course as a band already well into middle age Tinariwen hardly has the oeuvre that the other artists had at a much earlier age, but then much of their best work probably still lies ahead. How many of the others can say the same? I bet they’ve got some of the best stories. And if life growing up in the desert seems like a curse, consider that they’ve also been very lucky coming from one of only a handful of places- besides Mali, maybe only Cuba, New Orleans, and where else?- that is truly musically magical. Thus when the Festival du Desert in Timbuktu was first getting off the ground less than a short ten years ago, you had the likes of Ali Farka Toure’, Oumou Sangare’, Justin Adams, and Robert Plant… yes that Robert Plant, there as participants and witnesses to something extraordinary about to take place, the unification of Mali by music, something still only tentative politically.
When I first became aware of Tinariwen only three short years ago, they were my big discovery of the year. Out of some 100+ CD’s that I gathered as part of my birthright as a first-time paying member of the World Music trade conference WOMEX, a short 3-song sampler by Tinariwen was my favorite. I turned other non-industry people on to it. Little did I know then of their preceding legend, guns and guitars and revolutions and revelations and all that, even less that they were about to break BIG, or big by world music standards anyway. Within a year they were opening for the Stones and touring small clubs in the
Fast forward to the present and Tinariwen is past the heady days of their triumphant international debut and ready to prove their staying power. To take twenty years to produce an album or two is one thing. Can they do it every year or two? If their new album is any indication, I suspect they can. Imidiwan (‘Companions’) shows no signs of the slowing down, toning down, self-conscious caution, or the- God forbid- cover album that frequently afflicts a red-hot band’s senior thesis. Too often a real ‘thriller’ gets followed by something ‘bad.’ And they now have to contend with many imitators and band-wagoneers, too. Anybody can do their version of ‘desert blues,’ but there’s more to it than that. Many bands play ‘Afro-Beat’ also, but how many can sound like Fela? It’s the same with Tinariwen. If they were a one-trick pony, they’d have washed up on the sand long ago. Imidiwan shows the full range of their repertoire.
In my lifetime, most of the albums I’ve listened to I’ve only heard once, and maybe half that many again only twice. Though I listen more than that to any album I review, I probably listened to Imidiwan five times… in rapid succession. That’s the highest compliment I can pay any album. They’ve still got the magic. The opening song ‘Imidiwan Afrik Temdam’ is classic Tinariwen, meditative and reflective as the desert wind, and the second song ‘Lulla’ follows in the same vein, adding those soothing female background vocals that balance the sometimes-raw Tinariwen sound so nicely. ‘Tenhert’ is a rap-and-boogie-woogie number and ‘Enseqi Ehad Didagh’ a slow earthy blues. ‘Tahult In’ follows in the boogie vein, which is a pleasant evolution to the Tinariwen repertoire, an enhanced down-to-earth melodical feel. In general, the album maybe veers a bit toward Ali Farka’s earthiness, and away from raw desert edginess. Chabiba sounds so much like an American folk lament that I halfway expected to hear Townes Van Zandt join in on a verse. Maybe success is mellowing Tinariwen out… or maybe not. Maybe it’s rounding them out. The closing song ‘Desert Wind’ is a five minute instrumental that needs no DJ remix version to define its sense of space. The space is infinite. That’s Imidiwan by Tinariwen. The desert just got less lonely. Check it out.