The Radio Tisdas Sessions
World Village, 2002)
For a dirt-poor country, the West-African state of Mali has an impressive artistic legacy, possessing both a rich oral literary tradition and lively musical scene. Strategically located on ancient migratory and trade routes, straddling cultures and empires, it has never ceased to inspire -- from novels by writers like T. Coraghessan Boyle and Maryse Conde, to the songs of modern-day artists popular with world music lovers, such as Salif Keita and Boubacar Toure. But as ethnic Mandinka and Bambara, respectively, they are firmly rooted in the sub-Saharan or black-African musical traditions.
Tinariwen's The Radio Tisdas Sessions album is the artistic output of a group of musicians whose home is the vast expanse of the Sahara. This huge desert, stretching from Sudan in the East to Mauritania in the West, touches also on the northern reaches of Mali. The formation's name means "empty places" in their native Tamashek tongue, a clear reference to the desolation of the group's ancestral lands. The Kel Tamashek or Imashagen ("The Free") are better known to the outside world as Tuareg, a derogative Arabic term meaning "the Godforsaken," given to them by the Arab-Muslim conquerors of North Africa. These pastoral desert dwellers have probably been around for thousands of years. As nomads they made a living in the caravan trade and by breeding camels, performing a key role in the contacts between the Arabized coastal areas of North Africa and tropical West Africa.
Modern times have not been kind to the Tamashek. They were regarded with great suspicion by the French when they colonized large tracks of western Africa, the Tamashek's fiercely independent spirit being at odds with the Europeans' imperialist project. After Mali gained independence in 1960, however, their fate hardly improved because the last four decades have been marred by violent clashes between the central government and the Tamashek, who refuse to give up their nomadic existence. Armed conflict forced thousands to flee into exile.
That is basically also the story of Tinariwen. While living in one of the refugee camps in southern Libya, a number of guerilla fighters decided to trade their guns for guitars. Since 1982, Tinariwen has continued to develop a new musical style, which is known as Tishoumaren or "music of the unemployed" -- a reference to the plight of many young Tamashek. When conditions modestly improved in the mid-'90s, Tinariwen returned to Mali. Finally, in late 2000, technical means became available to make their first recordings. The result can be heard on this CD, named after the local radio station in Kidal, Mali -- hometown to most of Tinariwen's current members.
Confronted with the difficulties of continuing their traditional music because of the dispersion of their people, the musicians of Tinariwen taught themselves to play guitar and let themselves be inspired by the Western music they heard. The outcome of this endeavor is an interesting fusion of indigenous rhythms and melodies with Western sounds that works remarkably well. John Lennon and the "two Bobs of the disenfranchised people," Bob Marley & Bob Dylan, exercised great influence on Tinariwen, but the introductions to some of the numbers reminded me also of Canned Heat. Having had the opportunity to visit the Sahara and its people many years ago, listening to The Radio Tisdas Sessions transported me back to that place and time -- confirming that Tinariwen has succeeded in capturing the mood and atmosphere of their world.
This successful merger of musical styles in such a faraway country also invites a "chicken or the egg"-type of question regarding who influenced whom. From earlier readings on Malian music and artists I recall claims that Mali or the greater West African region is the original home of the blues, and that the musical style was only carried to the New World during the era of cross-Atlantic slave trading. We will probably never know the answer with any degree of certainty, but what I do know is that this CD's 10 tracks are an excellent way to become acquainted with a highly impressive people, who take pride in their heritage while simultaneously engaging with the outside world through artistic means. Both Tinariwen and the producers who made this project possible, Justin Adams and Lo'Jo, deserve our congratulations because they have shown once again that there is probably no better medium to express our shared humanity than music.