Enter Sandmen

Is Tinariwen the greatest band on earth?

For rockers and rappers of a certain stripe, a hard-bitten back story is an indispensable part of their mystique and a bold-face item in their press releases. What would 50 Cent be without the gun battle that left a bullet shard lodged in his tongue? (Answer: about $50 million poorer.) Of course, there’s hard-bitten and there’s hard-bitten. These self-styled rebels and gangstas would do well to consider the case of Tinariwen, a rock group, of sorts, from the swath of the Sahara that stretches northeast of Timbuktu. Tinariwen is made up of Tuareg, Berber nomads who waged a decades-long separatist struggle against the Malian government that disposed them of their traditional territories. The band was formed in the early 1980s by three teenagers, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Hassan Ag Touhami, and Inteyeden Ag Ableline, living in exile in southern Algeria. The musicians were typical of the Tuareg youth of their generation—adrift and nearly destitute, hungry for self-determination and revenge—and they poured their emotions into confessional songs sung in Tamashek and French, and laced with rough-hewn guitar work. Eventually, the three friends found themselves in Muammar Qaddafi’s’s Tuareg training camps in Libya, and then back in Mali, fighting in a brief, bloody guerilla war. They were rock ’n’ roll rebels whose rebellion, for once, wasn’t just metaphorical.

A lesser band could build a following on the strength of that colorful past alone. But Tinariwen, now featuring eight members, happens to make extraordinary music. The songs are modal vamps, with gruff call-and-response vocals, congas, handclaps, and layered guitar riffs, which build to trancelike fugues. For years, the band’s recordings circulated through the Sahara samizdat-style, on cassette tapes, but Westerners began to take notice in 2001, after a performance at Le Festival au Désert, an annual concert in Essakane, Mali. In 2004, Tinariwen released a superb CD, Amassakoul (Traveler), and toured Europe, collecting admirers (including some famous ones, like Robert Plant). Now comes another, even better record, Aman Iman (Water Is Life) (produced by Plant’s guitarist Justin Adams), whose spellbinding dozen songs make a case that Tinariwen is one of the finest bands on earth.

They certainly know how to play their guitars. On the new album, nearly all the songs open with ruminative riffing on a lone guitar before settling into inexorable grooves, with guitar lines stacked in counterpoint above a propulsive bass. Tinariwen has six guitarists, and they’re all aces. In many songs, the rhythm players are so crisp, cutting, and lyrical that they sound like they are playing leads. You don’t need the lyric sheet’s Tamashek-English translation to know that “Tamatant Tilay” (“Death Is Here”) is a battle hymn: You can hear fear and blood-lust in Hassan Ag Touhami’s scrappy picking. Mali is famous for great guitarists like Boubacar Traoré and the late Ali Farka Touré, and while Tinariwen makes use of a similar mélange of influences—mashing up the ancient modal scales of Arab and West African music with American blues—its sound is fiercer, and thicker. Call Tinariwen a rock band, if you like. Guitar orchestra might be more accurate.

Frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib definitely looks the part of guitar hero, glowering beneath an extravagant mop of curls on the Aman Iman album cover. Ag Alhabib plays guitar like he sings, in a rugged staccato style, but his songwriting is full of yearning and tenderness, laments for lost love and lost land. He is a George Jones of the Sahara, a weeper specialist. In “Cler Achel” (“Spent the Day”), he sings: “You’ve gone, Mila, you’ve already gone, and I’ve plunged deeper into my dreams/ Whatever my thoughts, she occupies them all, and my heart cries out still.” The one-chord drone in “Imidiwan Winaklin” (“Friends of My Country”) is jaunty, but the lyrics are wrenching: “I’m in a motherless land and my soul burns with unhappiness/ I consume my thoughts with the smoke of cigarettes, and it amplifies my pain.” Homesickness is Tinariwen’s great theme, but in addition to plaints, the band sings pastoral reveries, songs whose lyrics and vast, ringing sound evoke the majesty of the “white, naked, and empty” desert. (Tinariwen means “empty places” in Tamashek.)

Empty places, camels beneath beating sun, poet-warriors crisscrossing an ocean of sand: Tinariwen is an Orientalist fantasy come to life, and it’s hard for a Western listener not to exoticize the musicians, particularly when the ululating cries of Mina Wallet Oumar, the group’s sole female member, ripple over the churning music. Like any successful band, Tinariwen has learned to exploit its image—just check out the Aman Iman album package, with its photos of the band in billowing traditional garb framed against forbidding desert landscapes. Robert Plant has spoken of his discovery of Tinariwen as an epiphany—“I felt this was the music I’d been looking for all my life”—and many reviewers have described Tinariwen as a throwback to “roots of the blues.”

It’s true that Tinariwen’s music is steeped in ancient folk melodies. It’s also true that Ag Alhabib’s first guitar was a contraption fashioned from a stick, a jerrycan, and some bicycle brake wire. But some of the earliest songs he learned on that guitar were American rock and pop hits. (Carlos Santana was a favorite—no surprise given Ag Alhabib’s look.) And while Tinariwen’s desert odes inspire romantic thoughts of a distant past, this is not a band on a nostalgia trip. One of the best songs on the new album, “Mano Dayak,” is an anthem about the Tuareg freedom struggle that ends with a striking image of modernity: “Now I’ve seen something that fills me with joy/ A Tamashek whose living well/ And communicating through a satellite phone/ Tied to the tree under which he rests.” It’s an ecstatic ode to the globalized present, and Aman Iman sounds as gleamingly contemporary as any record I’ve heard this year—great 21st-century dance music, made with just a few guitars and a lot of clapping hands.