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A Hot Breath of Saharan Rock

They applied Western instruments to the traditions of home: gnarled picking patterns from West African lutes, call-and-response vocals, three-against-two rhythms, a high descant sharing a melody, the modes and inflections of North African and Arabic music. The melodies are as straightforward as folk tunes, but they tug against the harmony in ways different from Western pop or rock, and the vocals stay unpolished — like the voices of footsore travelers, not slick performers.


“Imidiwan: Companions” (Tinariwen)

Tinariwen is by far one of my favorite discoveries of recent years. Love their sound, hypnotic, desert blues. Awesome stuff.

Since the late 1970’s, on and off, Tinariwen has been a voice for the Tuaregs, a nomadic minority who attempted a rebellion in 1990 against the government of Mali. The band’s founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, and the musicians he gathered as Tinariwen (which means “deserts”), wrote songs at first as propaganda. Now its lyrics, by the two lead singers who took turns as frontman — Mr. Alhabib and Mr. Alhousseyni — are solemn, filled with longings, memories of “freedom fighters,” homesickness and a determination to hold on to Tuareg identity.

The group had heard rock as well as African and Middle Eastern music. Its instruments are acoustic and electric guitars and electric bass, with a lone hand drum for percussion. They applied Western instruments to the traditions of home: gnarled picking patterns from West African lutes, call-and-response vocals, three-against-two rhythms, a high descant sharing a melody, the modes and inflections of North African and Arabic music. The melodies are as straightforward as folk tunes, but they tug against the harmony in ways different from Western pop or rock, and the vocals stay unpolished — like the voices of footsore travelers, not slick performers.

Tinariwen’s songs extend minimal materials over time. Instrumental passages are more like incantations than solo and backup; guitar lines are bonded to the rhythm, with a twang glinting through now and then. The songs are comparable, inevitably, to a journey through a desert landscape that only appears unchanging to those who don’t perceive its details. A vocal quaver, a guitar trill, some new quick notes in a bass line, a flicker of extra drumming or a burst of ululation from the group’s female singer, Wonou Wallet Sidati, all became events. When some songs picked up speed, in triplet rhythms with handclaps resembling Moroccan gnawa music, they sounded ecstatic.

A few songs revealed that Tinariwen is persistent, not provincial. There were hints of blues and reggae, and in one song, Mr. Alhousseyni placed a repeating guitar line in the foreground: a full-fledged rock guitar hook. But Tinariwen has clearly decided not to change too much for outsiders, and stubbornness only makes its music stronger.

[Click to continue reading Music Review – Tinariwen – Hot Breath of Saharan Rock at Highline Ballroom – NYTimes.com]

A wonderfully apt description actually: this kind of music is subtle, rewarding multiple listenings to discover nuances. A casual listen might not reveal how the music shifts in time, this is not Auto-tuned pop music.1

Footnotes:
  1. Reminds me of a long-lost friend from Morocco, a drummer, and student at UT, who basically pontificated the same thought to me one evening. I’ll tell you more in person if you are interested. []

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