Monday, February 25, 2008

Mali Monday #2: Tinariwen

Image taken by Thomas Dorn and found here.

Official site

The second installment of Mali Monday features a band I have mentioned on this blog before and whose most-recent album, Aman Iman: Water is Life, was among my selections for the best music of 2007. The YouTube video linked to below is a documentary intended to promote Aman Iman (all the music you'll hear from it and Part II, below, are from that album), but it also gives you a strong sense of the geographical, cultural and historical contexts out of which Tinariwen was born. Powerful viewing.

Part II of the documentary is here

An observation:
Once you hear this band's music, you'll sense that its emphasis is on groove, that there is most often only a lyrical difference demarcating verses and choruses. Though there is space set aside for instrumental solos, the playing during those breaks tends not to be at all flashy. Still, you'd think a rock-n-roll guitarist steeped in the blues and attuned to world musics would fit well with this sort of music. Someone like, say, Carlos Santana. You would think. I'll let you find and listen to the results for yourselves--in the YouTube section of Tinariwen's website, they've linked to two performances where they shared a stage with Santana, and I made it only half way through one of them. The awkwardness of their performance is such that you can't pass it off as being unrehearsed (all Santana was called upon to do was improvise leads). I'm no musicologist, so what follows is mostly speculation on my part: We in the West have groove-based music, too, but the groove is in the rhythm section. We tend not to associate the melody with the groove; that leaves plenty of room for a soloist to do his/her thing and not interfere with anyone. Tinariwen's music, though, is of a piece: everything counts; even the singing is part of its groove. Because there's nothing extraneous, there's no real space for a soloist. Hence that painfully awkward-sounding performance--there was really nothing, musically-speaking, for one of the world's greatest guitarists to do during his performances with Tinariwen.

None of this is a criticism of anyone, by the way. It's more an expression of surprise that it didn't work--that it didn't come close to working. It's also a useful reminder that, as similar as these musics from Mali sound to the U.S.'s tradition of blues and blues-based musics, their differences lie deep below those surfaces.


Sheila said...

That's an interesting point you make about the groove, that it can arise not only from rhythm but from melody. From Mali to Memphis there is not in fact a point-to-point correspondence.

John B. said...

I haven't overlooked this; I've been trying to distill a succinct response out of a whole lot of half-informed speculation.
Just off the top of my head, I'd say that the "American" (read: Western) part of African-American musics would be that melody is apart from rhythm. I guess. Anyone out there know more about this? The bar is very low, I assure you . . .