Aman Iman: Water is Life

(World Village; 2007)

By Joel Elliott | 26 January 2008

he best part about old Fela Kuti albums is how momentously uplifting they are. Surprising, really, since Kuti often sang about the most horrendous conditions under an oppressive Nigerian regime, his lyrics often betraying a deep sense of bitterness and sarcasm. But the music itself was its own liberating force: a reaction, I suspect, to conditions that were too appalling to allow for the luxury of melancholy. From what I've seen of African art and writing, there's little sense of a contradiction between acknowledging the devastation of a crisis and transcending it. In Western culture, we tend to see the latter as a form of escapism, which also tends to limit the degree to which any genuinely positive force in art can be accepted.

Consider Tinariwen, whose album title alone -- Water is Life -- speaks measures about the band's attitude towards their surroundings. I'm not sure if it's funny or sad that an album by that title also has a cover showing its members standing with the vast, arid landscape of the Western Sahara surrounding them. Consider, perhaps, what water means to those who have it in such scarcity and you touch on the extent to which the band embodies both intense longing and celebration. Lead vocalist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib possesses a voice that is hushed and intimate, but when a chorus echoes his melodies it shifts the emphasis from personal strife to collective struggle.

Granted the band's back-story encourages this kind of reading on its own. The original members of Tinariwen (a line-up which has changed frequently over the years) met in 1982 as exiles from their native Mali; part of an army of Tuareg rebels seeking independence from the Malian government. Whether the band actually still lives the life of Tuareg nomads/outlaws, the sense of loneliness and exile is palatable on tracks like "Soxiante Trois," which features only Ag Alhabib's vocals, carefully palm-muted electric guitar, and muffled bass drum. "Tinariwen" means "Empty spaces" in Tamashek, and the band makes good use of space: the guitar never overwhelms the voices and handclaps, the latter of which are so integrated rhythmically into the music it can be hard to separate them from the actual percussive instruments. Fusion of Western and African music is nothing new, but Tinarwien make heavily amped music sound like an entirely organic extension of the music's acoustic origins. Guitar is heavily reverbed to the extent that it often functions as another percussion instrument, as much as it echoes the melodies with its winding lyricism. But above it all is that voice, which seems to carry a character all its own, especially for people (myself included) who aren't accustomed to the distinct syllables of the Tamashek language or the Arabic scales that the band often employs.

Aman Iman: Water is Life doesn't really stray far from the basic structure of 8-12 bar melodies; they are repeated, often in the order of single voice/chorus of voices/guitar solo. Evens so, it still contains a fair amount of variation. Acoustic songs like "Kyardardem" provide a nice contrast to the rolling polyrhythms of "Toumast," and "Mano Dayak" sustains a relatively simple structure through Ag Alhabib's relentless vocals, which never seem to hold onto one note without gliding effortlessly across entire scales, throwing pockets of grace notes in for good measure.

While Tinariwen may stick to a fairly simple structure, it's obvious the band doesn't operate exclusively within a traditional style. Evidently the band represents the first Tuareg group to don electric guitars, and their MySpace cites Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix among their influences. Their association with Western music was furthered in a recent performance with Carlos Santana and an opening slot for the Rolling Stones earlier this month. You can hear some of these influences in the guitar effects and timbres of the vocals, and yet Aman Iman is miles away from the narcissistic indulgence of Western rock n' roll. Robert Plant had to mine Tolkien, ancient British folklore, and cosmopolitan Eastern spirituality for a source of conflict; Tinariwen sing about conflict they live through every day.