Finding a band that is focused on its art to the exclusion of all else has been something of a holy grail for many record executives, but in Tinariwen it’s quite possible that producer and guitarist Justin Adams has found it.
Hailing from the wilderness – lavishly photographed on the liner notes to Aman Iman (Water is Life) – of northeast Mali, Tinariwen is more of a clan than a fixed band. But centred around three kel tinariwen (desert boys) – Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Hassan Ag Touhami and Inteyeden – theirs is a story that started in the 1980s with a guitar and dreams of Tuareg independence. Like most stories, it didn’t run smoothly – rebellion and time in Libyan military camps followed – until an encounter with the French band Lo’jo brought the Tuareg musicians the possibility of a wider audience.
With basic electric guitars, drums, voices and much improvisation, there’s raw appeal to Tinariwen’s music – a hint of Ali Farka Touré’s ur-blues, but also surprising nuances. ‘Matadjem Yinimixan’ (Why all this hate between you?) reverberates around a loose guitar riff modulating in a way that conjures up Indian ragas as interpreted by Sixties psychedelic bands. There’s nothing extraneous here, and it’s glorious to imagine the chorus of voices – male as well as female – swelling beneath a desert sky. The lyrics have a poetry, too: ‘Assouf’ (Longing) likens exile to a profound darkness. The comfort of love, both romantic and home, as expressed in ‘Izarharh Tenere’ (I Lived in the Desert), is a song that draws you closer to the stereo speakers, so as to get the full warmth of the words.