Label: World Village
Though it is cliche, music truly is a universal language. Even if you do not understand the lyrics, if the heart and soul is behind it, it translates across all barriers. Case in point is the dozen musicians that make up Mali's most successful group, Tinariwen. Their 2004 release, Amassakoul, is the finest of all of their recordings and is a great introduction to anyone looking to explain their musical horizons.
The make-up of the band is nearly as intriguing as the music they create. The band was originally formed in 1982 by a group of nomads who had been forcefully conscripted into the army of then Colonel Myammar al-Gaddai. The name of the group translates into "empty places," which, being nomads, is a nod to their wide-spread, perhaps unknown, lands of origin. Their songs, when translated, are very much in the spirit of Woody Guthrie and Bob Marley, encouraging the less fortunate and oppressed to rise up and be strong. Their style is referred to as "tishoumaren," which translates into "music of the unemployed." This "everyman" feeling is felt throughout all of their songs as they involve large group vocals and, even without speaking the language (mostly French and Tamashek), you can feel the emotion and soul within the words and music.
On Amassakoul, the group's second record (they released self made tapes until 2000), they set aside the overdubs and studio polish that they used on their amazing debut album and strip things down to the simple elements that made them famous. Multiple rhythms, brilliant guitar movements, and stunning vocals enable the album to be both relaxing and energizing simultaneously. Though the sound obviously has strong Afro-beat influences, many of the guitar riffs are as "rock and roll" as any band has ever written. One rather interesting point is the main riff on the song, "Chet Boghassa." It is quite similar to the riff from Simon & Garfunkel's, "Mrs. Robinson" in both melody and pop appeal.
The variety of styles on Amassakoul is unparalleled as the group moves from traditional Afro-beat to literal rap songs to blues and straight-up rock and roll. Each of these style changes are carried out with equal precision and whether they are making you groove or conveying the emotions of deep struggle, nothing is lost in any way, shape, or form. Again, the language barrier is clearly a non-factor on the song "Arawan," and it is clear to anyone that this is a song of rebellion and it carries as much weight and impact as the finest protest songs ever written.
The reality is, if Tinariwen sang in English, they'd undoubtedly be massive worldwide superstars. Their ability to play any style with exceptional results vaults them high above nearly every other band on the planet. For those who believe that the current state of music is rather stale, Tinariwen is a refreshing in every sense of the word. Everything about Tinariwen as a group, lyrically, musically, and spiritually revolves around being for "everyone." Do yourself a favor and get a copy of Amassakoul, and become part of that "everyone."
Standout tracks: "Oualahila Ar Teninam, " "Arawan," and "Aldhechen Manin"