The Tuareg-Berber band Tinariwen from northern Mali is one of the most popular bands to have emerged from the desert regions of West Africa. After gaining recognition from their performances at the Festival of the Desert in 2001 in Mali, the band started to perform in Europe and North Africa to great acclaim. After a stunning recording debut with The Radio Tisdas Sessions, the band has gone on to release a further four popular albums, the latest of which, Tassili (Anti, 2011), won a Grammy award for Best World Music Album last year, and reached the World Beat desk this week.
Tassili , the latest album by ‘Desert Bluesmen’ Tinariwen.
Tinariwen's success has been built on the hypnotic electric guitar-based sound, known locally as "assouf", that so thrills live audiences. The band also has the kind of rock 'n' roll resume that many Western bands would swap their plectrums for: Former armed Tamashek rebels who lived in Algeria in exile until the '90s and then swapped their guns for guitars. The late Ali Farka Toure, a master of northern Malian music, once told me that the blues and much Western rock have some of their roots in the music of the Tamashek people.
While the band has developed its sound from the guitar traditions of northern Mali and the folk traditions of the Tamashek people, you can also hear influences from Algerian rai music, Egyptian pop and Western rock acts like Jimi Hendrix whose music found its way into the desert via cassettes. But whatever outside influences are discernible, the sound these musicians have created is their own.
The band began playing music in remote desert sites in Algeria on acoustic instruments, mainly guitar and simple percussion played on a calabash drum, and it is this style that the band has returned to for its fifth album. Because of the conflict in Mali in 2010, Tinariwen's musicians were unable to record in their home base of Tessalit, so they transported recording equipment, under the watchful eye of producer Ian Brennan, to a canyon located deep in the southern Algerian national park at Tassili n'Ajjer. The deluxe version of the album includes a 14-minute documentary on DVD that shows what a stunning landscape this is _ eerily-shaped, sandstone outcrops set against an immense sky; the perfect place for reflection and a return to roots.
The band also invited several guest musicians they had played with at various festivals. Alternative guitarist Nels Cline of the US band Wilco, Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of the US band TV On The Radio, and two members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band guest on several tracks.
The first track, Imidiwan Ma Tennam, sets the tone for the album as over spare guitars and a rolling rhythm, lead guitarist and vocalist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, laments: "What have you got to say, my friends/about this painful time we're living through?" By the time the listener has been drawn into this intimate sad song (Cline's spare guitar works well on this track with Alhabib's spare riffs), he has answered his own rhetorical question with: "We live in ignorance/and it holds all of the power."
It is the next song, though, that really brings home the sadness of facing a life that is no longer based on the nomadic traditions of the past. Assuf D Alwa (Longing and Loneliness) begins with another haunting thought: "Oh, longing, loneliness and despair!/I'm a prisoner of the present." But the song is in fact also about how people can gain some respite from uncertainty and suffering by engaging with friends in simple, everyday rituals such as sharing a glass of tea. What starts out as a cry of suffering ends with the affirmation of friendship and communal life.
Ya Messinagh features two members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and they add sonic muscle to a haunting lament, while Tenere Taqhim Tossam features, for the first time, English lyrics sung by Tunde Adebimpe. The guests don't overstay their welcome on this album; their input is used sparingly to add texture to the desert rhythms and melodies of Tinariwen's evolving sound.
This album is something of a departure for Tinariwen; the band's previous albums have all been based around the infectious electric guitar sound that has thrilled music fans at festivals the world over. Tassili shows another side to Tinariwen, one that is acoustic, intimate and thoughtful. Just like sitting down for a cup of tea with an old friend. Highly recommended.
About the author
- Writer: John Clewley