A slow Hendrix blues riff, deep, rough and insistent, slashes through the aural space. Broken down and repeated, the opening riff is joined by the offbeat upstrokes of a second, trebly electric guitar establishing a shuffle counterpoint. A fast rap barely breaks through the sound of the guitars, becoming louder when it morphs into a sung chorus with backing vocals (three, maybe four words). About four minutes in, the guitars drop out and the song is stripped down: a fast rap over a loopy funk bass line, accompanied by handclaps and soft percussion. The offbeat guitar upstrokes return joined by an arpeggiated riff on a second guitar, then a lead guitar. The vocals become secondary as the guitars propel the song to its ending and the opening riff returns. While the description could fit a performance of an up-and-coming indie band at the Noise Pop festival later this month, it is not describing the work of an American band. Or even a Latin American or European band. No, it is from one of the more remote outposts of rock 'n' roll, the southern Sahara.
In the southern Sahara during the late 1970s, young Malian Touaregs, living in exile after the government crushed an uprising in the early 1960s, created a new style of guitar-driven rock. The songs they wrote mixed traditional Touareg melodies and rhythms with Moroccan folk music, rai, and rock; the lyrics spoke of exile, homesickness, and political struggle. Soon the locals began to call them "Kel Tinariwen" ("the desert boys"); later, simply Tinariwen. Within a few years, the group had become the musical voice of the Touareg rebel movement. Their songs, distributed on cassettes throughout the Sahara, became a powerful tool in the struggle to reclaim Touareg sovereignty. In 1990, disillusioned with the movement, the members of Tinariwen slipped away from the rebel base and returned to Mali shortly before a second Touareg rebellion began. Six months later, the Malian government offered the rebel movement peace terms, and the members of Tinariwen happily returned to being musicians. A decade later, in 2001, they burst into the "world" music market after an epic performance at Mali's first Festival in the Desert.
"Tenhert," the song described at the beginning of this piece, from the 2009 CD Imidiwan, shows Tinariwen today. To hear its groove-based sound, as it was when the band took off, you only need to listen to its 2001 release, The Radio Tisdas Session. It can be described as a modernization of traditional Touareg music with an electric guitar taking the place of the traditional lute. But a major change in musical aesthetics was also taking place: Percussion is used alongside the guitars. It's subtle, but drums with lutes is an aesthetic no-no that had persisted longer among the Touareg than most other groups in West Africa. The Radio Tisdas Sessions was rough, live performances recorded on a solar-powered tape deck at a Touareg radio station in Kidal, Mali, but the new sound it showcased was a success at home and in the world music market. Tinariwen began a heavy touring schedule, which hasn't let up.
The band was noticeably tighter on 2004's Amassakoul. On 2007's Aman Iman, Tinariwen emerged as a rock band. Tinariwen brings a gentler voice to its latest release, Imidiwan. The album has been described as being as much a rich soundscape of Touareg life and that's a fair take. Not to say there aren't hard edges. The last two minutes of "Tenhert" are pure rock brilliance.
The recorded work of Tinariwen is satisfying and has flashes of brilliance, but the band is at its best live. Southern Saharan rock bands like Terakaft, Tartit, and Etran Finatawa are all following in Tinariwen's wake, but each adds something new to the mix. A new, old spin on rock, only this time it's coming from the Sahara.