OK, I'll fess up: I only discovered Mali's Tinariwen after Robert Plant raved about them in an interview four years back. But the nomadic desert blues collective has in fact existed in some form or other since 1979, their impassioned, highly politicised sound an issue-raising catalyst for the Tuareg people of the southern Sahara long before someone pulled a Ry Cooder and helped record their wonderfully stirring music for consumption outside of Africa.
On Aman Iman — as on their "official" 2001 debut The Radio Tisdas Sessions — that person is producer Justin Adams, the multi-instrumentalist and erstwhile Wayward Sheiks member who is also a member of Robert Plant's current band, the Strange Sensation. Adams does an excellent job, acting as facilitator, not meddlesome shaper.
This time out, Tinariwen has made a fabulously skewed blues album that restores a winning exoticism to that oft-heard genre. The return of near-mythic founding member Mohamed Ag Itlale after six years in the desert (and you can take that quite literally) proves memorable, his improvised poetry on “Ahimana” intoxicating even if, like me, you don't understand a word of his native tongue.
Gritty and wholly involving, the album is a delicious tangle of snaking Malian guitars, Möbius strip-like rhythms, fat bass, clanking percussion and call-and-response chanting. The hypnotic pulse of “Cler Achel” is such that resistance is futile, while “Tamatant Tilay” further underlines Tinariwen's status as lords of the feral dance. But there are also gentler moods, the meditative-sounding “Izarar Tenéré” so soothing that it's easy to forget that the members of Tinariwen are in fact fearsome, Colonel Gaddafi-trained guerrillas-turned-troubadours.
Word is that the final mix of the album had to be submitted for the approval of the Tuareg tribal elders, and that band percussionist Said Ag Ayad ferried it to them by camel. Now, how cool is that?