Global Beat Fusion: The Romance of Tinariwen

09/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our love of the world begins with romanticizing. Images of foreign cultures etch idyllic scenarios in our mind; we let our minds journey. The imagination is a powerful instrument, arguably consciousness's greatest, perhaps more so than reason. Both have their place. A half-decade back, Americans were asked to imagine long stretches of sand in the Sahara, where a band of ex-rebel soldiers took up guitars as weapons and played the Tuareg music of their ancestors, only Hendrixified. Distorted electric guitars joined handclaps, call-and-response chants, and larger-than-life sounding African percussion. Their name was Tinariwen.

That's still their name, in fact, and they became one of the most successful international acts from their continent in this young century. Elder members had fought in a war, happy now to live more peacefully with music and family. They are revitalizers, men of desert knowledge and spiritual pursuits; their lyrics, like griot neighbors in Saharan cities, speak of family, love, loneliness, god. Their album covers feature a revolving cast of musicians in traditional garb wielding guitars and percussion with the landscape of rocks, sand, sun. Their success opened the floodgates for a host of excellent and mediocre Tuareg bands to follow.

About three months ago my cranium was split in half watching them perform at New York City's Le Poisson Rouge. Before the show, I sat with them backstage, two elders chanting, one playing guitar, other members lying on the floor passed out in exhaustion. They had just destroyed Coachella and were resting up for the tamer crowd of 700 in the East Village. They played for twenty minutes while I meditated on a country I have yet to visit, my throat trying to free itself of the tobacco aftertaste my friends outside had rolled into the spliff. I get it -- tobacco covers the smell of the more potent leaf -- but I don't get it. Why waste something so beautiful on something so damaging? This music, in a language I didn't understand played by people I couldn't communicate with, I got.

There's also something romantic about foreign languages. I wonder if people in India that watch American Idol understand all the lyrics, or if medina dwellers in Fes, where I saw 2Pac and Biggie t-shirts constantly, comprehend the hooks they're singing. Instinctually, perhaps--the only way to understand a beat is to sway to it. Tinariwen's lyrics are romantic because they pay homage to their people, their land, their desires and loves; they are not romanticized, which is the difference between a lot of folk music and pop.

Take, for example, "Imidiwan Afrik Temdam," the opening track on Tinariwen's fourth album, Imidiwan (World Village): My friends from all over Africa/I have a question, a question which torments my soul/Companions/Is the revolution like those trees/Whose branches will grow if we water them?/I have lived with this obsession for ten years/I have come amongst brothers/My friends, what do you think?/These men have been living with oppression/Since the day of their birth/They cannot make the trees grow with their water.

The romance is the sadness, the struggle for growth, the metaphors themselves; there is nothing whimsical or fancified. While chatting with Tinariwen's tour manager, Fabian Alsultany, he told me how ready they were to return home -- their homes which are in actual deserts, the very ones pictured in those stunning photographs in their album liner notes, with miles and miles of sand and sun between them and everywhere else. That is: they are fully actualized artists. They don't stroll into picturesque scenes with expensive camera equipment and security guards for a few hours; they don't rent poolside mansions with cars and dogs and women. I recently saw an interview with Lady Gaga that caused me to Gag -- that her music involves that much self-gratifying attitude is a farce, a sad one at that. The one word that kept coming to mind when sitting with Tinariwen that evening was "humble." That's the difference between an artist and an entertainer.

Driving from Casablanca to Fes last year, hours and hours of sand, thirsty trees, golden people, donkeys on farms with little grass, the music made more sense. Music is, among other things, a reflection of the environment that births it. Its universality is derived from its self-realization of the culture and time that made it. I experienced something similar my first time in the Caribbean with reggae, just as I did when I first began driving the streets of New York. Hip-hop is concrete and buildings and fierceness. Reggae is shanties and calaloo and ackee and marijuana. Deserts produce desert music.

The following is a common statement whenever reading about a band's new record, though regarding Imidiwan, it is completely true: this is their finest album to date. I've been a fan since The Radio Tisdas Sessions; the production on their latest sonically rivals Aman Iman. The songwriting has more depth, more emotion, many more peaks and valleys than anything they've previously released. The band fits its skin better than ever. A companion half-hour DVD shot by Jessy Nottola brings the people from behind the songs up front, in those romanticized desert scenes you've heard about and gazed upon. Yes, it's romantic; more importantly, it's real.

The beauty of the human imagination is the romance it has with the world, with its ability to close the separation between here and there. To romanticize is to create a world in your head that does not reflect the world outside of it, which only prepares you, unconsciously at that, for disappointment, for suffering. To be romantic is to live fully, completely, without regret, while fully aware that suffering is part of the deal. You understand that, you overcome the mental afflictions associated with it. As humans, we've always turned to artists for that sense of transcendence that accompanies their craft. To be immersed in a band like Tinariwen is to experience that moment, again and again. The imagination is the guide, the world outside its playfield.

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