Tinariwen are bad-ass. The group’s members are desert-dwelling Tuareg tribesmen who always look windblown and pissed off—and let’s be honest, the guitars in their hands in band photos always look Photoshopped in, to cover AK-47s. They make music that combines hypnotic grooves with gutsy, blues-derived guitar riffs and Arabic-sounding percussion, a blend that’s earned them fans like Robert Plant—who traveled to the Festival in the Desert to perform with the group—and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.
Of course, Tinariwen aren’t unique. At least two other Tuareg groups, Tartit and Etran Finatawa, have albums out, and their sound is also similar to that of the Sahrawi tribe, whose best-known singer, Mariem Hassan, released a disc that made Global Rhythm’s Top Ten last year. But Tinariwen were the first—formed in 1982 and recording multiple cassettes before 2000’s The Radio Tisdas Sessions and 2004’s Assouf finally brought their sound to ears outside Africa—and they have a rock ’n’ roll swagger to their music and their presentation that the veiled women of Tartit and the well-meaning newcomers of Etran Finatawa can’t match. (Hassan is another matter; she’s carrying the primal vocal power of Patti Smith in the skin of a gently smiling grandma.)
Pretty much every Tinariwen song follows the same basic template. The guitars play rhythmic, repetitive riffs somewhere between Northern Mississippi blues (think Junior Kimbrough or R.L. Burnside), while the percussion is a mix of handclaps and hand drums—there’s no kit drummer, because a nomadic lifestyle means instrumentation has to be limited to stuff you can throw over your back on a strap, like a guitar or certain drums. The primary vocals are handled by a guy named Ibrahim, who’s got a wild unkempt Afro and a face that looks carved out of an old Samsonite suitcase. He’s the guy who looks, in photos, most like he’d rather be holding one of the aforementioned submachine guns. The backing vocals are what really give Tinariwen’s music its otherworldly, unsettling power, though. They’re performed by both men and women, but the women dominate, cutting loose with those high-pitched ululations that seem, like the Spanish rolled ‘r,’ to be something simply unachievable with a lazy American tongue. (Go ahead, try either one; at best, you’ll produce a sound likely to convince onlookers that you’re having a small stroke.)
Ibrahim’s not a particularly assertive vocalist. Frequently, he seems to be delivering a Tuareg version of the talking blues, reciting verses about the struggle for freedom and self-determination as the guitars and handclaps and oddly delicate slaps of the drums cycle endlessly on behind him. The guitarists rarely play anything like a solo in the Western rock sense, mostly sticking to elaborations of the melody line that only last a few bars. This is in line with Arabic and Middle Eastern music generally, which prizes ensemble interaction over individualistic showboating. Thus, tiny touches leap out. When a dubby echo effect is applied to the lead guitar on “Toumast,” it’s like postpunk has suddenly taken root in the desert. The song, and the track after it, “Imidiwan Winakalin,” are among the album’s most elaborate showcases for various bandmembers’ string-bending technique, too; players alternate time on the front line, as their bandmates ululate behind them. The penultimate cut, “Assouf,” is the real shocker, though, as the lead guitar is suddenly distorted in a positively Hendrixian manner. The rhythm slows to a near-crawl, and the blues riffs echo “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”—it’s enough to make you want to ride your camel to the next village and burn it down just so you can dance in the flames. If Aman Iman has a weakness, it’s that the songs are simultaneously too samey (“Assouf” aside) and too short. They blend into one another, and the trance they attempt to lull the listener into is too abruptly shattered wh