Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Tinariwen

  • The Radio Tisdas Sessions [World Village, 2002] B+
  • Amassakoul [World Village, 2004] A-
  • Aman Iman [World Village, 2007] A-
  • Imidiwan: Companions [World Village, 2009] **
  • Tassili [Anti-, 2011] A-
  • Emmaar [Anti-, 2014] B+
  • Live in Paris [Anti-, 2015] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Radio Tisdas Sessions [World Village, 2002]
Sahel nomads turned Qadaffi exploitees turned Bamako unemployeds, they worked out their revamped Tuareg folk music in acoustic bands of 30 or so and pared down as they electrified. In the Mali context they are or were warriors and rebels, literally. But at this distance they give off the same sere calm I associate with Ali Farka Toure and Afel Bocoum, only trancier--in the desert, folks really know how to trance. At this distance, they're touched by New Age tourism. But they're no less hypnotic for that. B+

Amassakoul [World Village, 2004]
These Tuaregs never get loud. Their tempos are deliberate, their sonics indigenous; their percussion comprises a single derbouka drum and some handclaps, and their chants eschew showmanship. Not that they're above reaching out, or marketing--they consciously costume themselves as desert exotics. But rarely has such a compelling electric-guitar band offered less rock and roll release. Even when they're inventing Sahara rap their goal is contained self-sufficiency--a principled nostalgia for the community that has been wrested from them. A-

Aman Iman [World Village, 2007]
Most Saharan music--by the women of Tartit, the phantoms who groan and ululate in and out of the Rough Guide and Festival in the Desert collections--slips as easily into the background as any other modern African subgenre. These militants are less ingratiating. The spiritual gravity of their melodies and grooves demands your attention without offering to reward it--what's sought isn't your affection but your respect. But give them time and eventually affection and even awe will follow--for the guitar line that opens the record, the call-and-response that follows the guttural intro to Track 4, the chorus that rises up out of Track 7. Study the booklet and discover that the subject of all three songs is the privations of exile. Perhaps you'd prefer something a little more upful--"Tamatant Tilay," say? Translation on that one: "We kill the enemies and become like eagles/We'll liberate all those who live in the plains." And it's not a metaphor. A-

Imidiwan: Companions [World Village, 2009]
For non-Tuaregs, the "purest" of three rather similar studio albums is also the driest ("Tenhert," "Lulla"). **

Tassili [Anti-, 2011]
The first Saharans to break internationally are forbidding even by the sere standards of the region. But they calm rather than mesmerize, which together with some subtly shameless showmanship helps sell them to peace-out types. Having found 2009's widely praised and supposedly "traditional" Imidiwan too lulling by half, which may be because I joined the caravan before Pitchfork and Entertainment Weekly and is definitely because they should rock out a little, I was disappointed to learn that this one is where they abandon electric guitars. But since there's never been any Agadez ax-god abandon about headman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the difference is marginal, especially given the help they've gathered on their first album for Epitaph's alt-trad label: Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone on guitar and/or vocals on five of the 12 tracks, Dirty Dozen Brass Band on a sixth. The collaborations are subtle but telling, as are Alhabib's deep melodies. Not "desert blues." Sadder than blues--too sad to be merely calming. A-

Emmaar [Anti-, 2014]
The facts as I see them. 1) Although Tuaregs are infinitely superior to Islamists insofar as they're not Islamists themselves, the imagined Tuareg homeland of Azawad is unlikely to be any juster a nation than Mali although maybe not Niger. 2) That's academic, because there'll never be an Azawad. 3) Tinariwen are tenacious self-promoters with a strong signature sound. 4) Tinariwen was the first band to export the Saharan style, but if you favor exhilaration in your music, better ones followed. 5) Tinariwen's practical principles compel and/or permit them to sell tiny variations on the same thing to a world-music market less discerning than it thinks it is. 6) Their second album for this alt-rock powerhouse is somewhat more exhilarating than their first only because the first was designed to be quiet. 7) The first, called Tassili in case you forgot, has better cameos. 8) Aman Iman from back in 2007 has more women on it. 9) Aman Iman is the one to have if you're having only one. B+

Live in Paris [Anti-, 2015]
Less than a year ago at the Bouffes du Nord, an elegantly refurbished old venue barely two miles from the bohemian Bataclan, the world's most renowned Malian musicians put on a show for a mixed audience of Christians, Muslims, and rank unbelievers. All were there to immerse in what an ISIS mission statement brands the "perversion" of live music, in this case by Tuaregs whose woman-friendly variant of Islam was embodied by special guest Lalla Badi, the 75-year-old queen of tind้, a drum played exclusively by women who are also entrusted with a trove of ceremonial lyics. Although some Tuaregs have banded with the Saharan Islamists of northern Mali in pursuit of Tuareg statehood and their next meal, many more love music, and as we know better now than we could have then, on this particular night these particular Tuareg musicians were a freedom force without borders. Having always found Tinariwen's groundbreaking popularization of Saharan guitar a touch solemn, I'm glad the live remakes are rougher--so spirited alongside Badi's raw, regal cameos. All these human beings had a shared life to celebrate that night. Now, so do we--the devout and the impious alike. A-