Sixteen years ago, a group called Tinariwen (the word for “deserts” in the Tamashek language) burst onto the world music scene with a performance at Mali’s Festival au Désert and subsequent performances in Europe. Since that time, the group has served as the unofficial musical ambassadors of the nomadic Touareg people and the “desert blues”, or assouf, music of the western Sahara region (encompassing parts of Mali, Niger, and Algeria). Through a discography spanning seven albums, Tinariwen has developed a progressively broader and more enthusiastic global audience, particularly among Western guitar rockers who seek a connection with the band’s combination of electric guitar riffs and meditative, cyclical melodies.
Tinariwen has also inspired many other assouf bands from the region, and the global attention they’ve attracted has helped make the Sahara a hotbed for musicians and producers seeking to introduce exotic-sounding music to Western audiences. One of these newer groups is Imarhan (meaning “the ones I care about” in Tamashek), based in southern Algeria. Last year, Imarhan released their self-titled debut, which quickly became one of my favourite albums of the year.
Tinariwen has since released a new album, Elwan (elephants), which sees the band collaborating with musicians such as Kurt Vile and Queens of the Stone Age’s Alain Johannes. Both musically and lyrically, these two recent records serve as musical bookends of a life lived amongst the ever-changing sand dunes and politics of the Sahara.
March 2017 Feature Albums: “Imarhan”, by Imarhan (2016); and “Elwan”, by Tinariwen (2017)
Imarhan represent both a new generation of Touareg musicians; they maintain a connection to their spiritual homeland in the deserts of northern Mali, but have grown up in more urbanized southern Algeria. Their music reflects these influences – Imarhan maintains a distinctive assouf sound of electric guitars and circular melodies, but one that is also mixed with influences from Algerian rai music and even more general funk. The sound is more reflective, expansive, and smooth; it is a record that would be at home if played on a Western college radio station.
The lyrics also reflect the worldview of an urban young adult seeking to make sense of the world. As an example, consider the lyrics of the title track, “Imarhan“:
It’s bitter to leave, accompanied by misgivings,
At the centre of a world without those who wish you well.
This world of yours is fast and competitive,
Beware of chasing it, it will make you anxious.
Like other tracks on the album, “Imarhan” expresses change, movement, fear and hope. The accompanying music is one of the most upbeat tracks on the album, with handclaps and funky guitar lines, reflecting the nervous energy of a young, entrepreneurial spirit that is anxious about leaving one’s home and traditional culture, while seeking to make their place in a world of new locations and opportunities.
By contrast, Tinariwen’s latest record offers a world-weary perspective on the most recent spate of civil and political unrest that has rocked the Sahara. In 2012, extremist elements within the Touareg community rebelled against the government in Mali, fuelled by weapons that had streamed across the Libyan border after the fall of Moammar Qaddafi’s regime. The conflict between the Touareg people and the central government had flared off and on for decades, but this time, the militants allied with Islamic fundamentalist groups. Most notably, Ansar al-Dine, a group with links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, took control of Timbuktu – a hub for desert-inspired music – and applied an extreme version of sharia law that banned any secular music.
The sudden fall of such a historic city rattled Western powers, and stoked fears of the spread of fundamentalist groups. A few months later, French and Malian troops launched a counteroffensive and re-took the major population centres of northern Mali. Since then, the region has lived under a precarious peace, monitored by a UN peacekeeping mission.
The lyrics of Elwan reflect the perspective of an older generation that mourns the latest changes to their homeland. They also capture the resignation of Touaregs who realize they are caught between a rock and a hard place: On the one hand, they have fought for generations for more autonomy from the central government; on the other, the most effective opposition is in the hand of Islamic fundamentalists who wish to wipe out their traditional culture. You can feel this mournfulness in the track “Tenere Taqqal”:
The Tenere has become an upland of thorns;
Where elephants fight each other, crushing tender grass under foot.
The gazelles have found refuge high in the mountains;
The birds no longer return to their nests at night;
The camps have all fled.
You can read the bitterness on the faces of the innocents;
During this difficult and bruising time;
In which all solidarity is gone.
The music on this album also reflects a more mellow sound – the hard guitar riffs and propelling rhythms of previous Tinariwen albums are now mostly replaced with introspective, reflective melodies. It is almost as if the group now seeks to leave a legacy for its successors, reminding them of their people’s dreams and imploring them to take it up for the new generation, when hopefully the bitterness of past conflicts and divisions can be overcome.
Even so, Tinariwen still find room to celebrate their culture’s love songs (as in the upbeat “Talyat”) and the power of women in the Touareg revolution (on the track “Asswat”). These are the two most danceable tracks in the album, and in fact, closely resemble the smoothed-out funk on Imarhan’s record. Could this be an example of the older generation relying on the younger upstarts for strength and inspiration?
Even without fully understanding the lyrics, both Imarhan and Elwan offer the listener a beautiful trip through the rhythms and generations of life in the Sahara desert. Personally, I find the “desert blues” genre so infectious because it manages to blend seemingly timeless rhythms and chants with modern-day electric fuzz and beats. At its best, music can provide another dimension to understand a people’s history, hopes, and anxieties. In their latest offerings, Tinariwen and Imarhan provide an intergenerational dialogue about life in the desert and in exile, about sorrow over past losses and division, and a nervous hope for a new age and new possibilities of expression.