Tinariwen are often associated with just one image: that of Touareg rebels leading the charge, machine gun in hand and electric guitar slung over the shoulder. The band ditch this cliché on their fifth album ‘Tassili’ and it’s for the best. The founding members abandoned their weapons long ago and on this new album they have engineered a minor aesthetic revolution by setting the electric guitar – the instrument which became their mascot and made them famous – to one side and giving pride of place to acoustic sounds, recorded right in the heart of the desert, which is the landscape of their existence, the cradle of their culture and the source of their inspiration. You might even call this radical move a return to the very essence of their art, a return which, paradoxically, has also opened the doors to some intriguing collaborations with members of TV On The Radio, Nels Cline (Wilco’s guitarist) or The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
There is some truth in that old cliché of the soldier-musician. In the 1980s, Ibrahim, Abdallah, Hassan, ‘Japonais’ and Kheddou began to play together in and around the town of Tamanrasset in southern Algeria. They would perform at weddings, baptisms or just simple youthful get-togethers. They then spent several years in the same military training camp in Libya before the Touareg rebellion broke out simultaneously in Mali and Niger and sent them out onto the field of battle in the southern Sahara. In parallel, their songs, recorded on cassettes scattered far and wide, helped to broadcast the message of a rebel movement that set out to promote the rights of nomadic people suffering under the arbitrary policies of repressive and distant central governments. When peace was signed in 1994, their demobilisation coincided with profound changes in the way of life of those desert people, whose traditions had been irrevocably upended by years of drought and sedentarization. Such calamities forced many young Kel Tamashek – the people who speak Tamashek, the language of the Touareg – into exile. Tinariwen became the spokespeople of a generation which looked on helplessly as their harvests thinned, their animal herds wasted away and their world slowly crumbled.
There was a time when Bob Marley and the Wailers lived a certain paradox, albeit on a different scale, to the one that was to greet Tinariwen: that of singing about the distress of their people whilst becoming global stars in the process. For it was in the embers of this social trauma, which remains just as precarious today, that Tinariwen caught fire and went global. The group, losing some of its original members and gaining new ones along the way, became a professional unit that toured the world, headlining at various important festivals including the Eurockéennes de Belfort in France, Glastonbury in the UK and Coachella in the US. Their albums Aman Iman (2007) and Imidiwan (2009) were eulogized by the media and attracted the praises of Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Thom Yorke, Brian Eno or Carlos Santana, with whom Tinariwen performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2006. Nonetheless, this success, this universal recognition didn’t alter the essence or spirit of their musical style, which mixes the bitter sound of spiky guitars with the often pantheistic approach of lyrical poetry that celebrates the sacred union between a people and their environment, and is the reflection of painful collective circumstances.
These circumstances have become considerably harder in recent months, to the point where the group were forced to record their new album far from their base in Tessalit, northern Mali, which is now deemed too insecure for outsiders to visit. Sticking with their desire to return to the roots of their music, and rediscover the age-old habits of their art, out in the wild, with acoustic guitars and unamplified percussion, they opted instead to record out in the deserts of southern Algeria, near the town of Djanet, in a protected region called the Tassili N’Ajjer. The place has historical significance for these old rebels. Back in the days of migration and rebellion it served as a refuge on the road to the Libyan training camps. It was in this lunar landscape of white sand, rocky outcrops and astounding geological riches, in that mineral solitude which lends itself so powerfully to introspection and the outpouring of deep feeling, that musicians and technicians gathered between November and December 2010, under a Mauritanian tent, with 400 kilos of gear and a mountain of problems to solve. The wind that made the tent frames creak, the sand that invaded the electric equipment, the constant chugging of the electricity generators, these were just some of the unwelcome intrusions that had to be overcome.
In this natural open space it was decided to approach the sessions in an unorthodox manner and, unlike the way it’s done in most studios, let the musicians give their inspiration free rein during seemingly endless sessions around the campfire. It took three weeks to gather all the songs on ‘Tassili’. Some are recent. Others have been dug up out of a much older, even traditional, repertoire. The latter only become obvious candidates when the guitars were picked up and strummed and other acoustic instruments played.
During the last week of recordings the singer Tunde Adebimpe and the guitarist Kyp Malone from the New York band TV On The Radio arrived at the camp. The two bands had been forging links ever since they met at the Coachella Festival in California back in 2009, links which were consolidated at Tinariwen’s Hollywood Bowl gig in Los Angeles a year later when Kyp and Tunde were invited on stage to jam with the band. Out in the desert, the contributions of the two musicians on five songs and later additions by guitarist Nels Cline and the horns of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, recorded in their manor down in new Orleans, give ‘Tassili’ the intriguing character of an album which reaches deep into the essence of Tinariwen’s art whilst simultaneously opening itself out to the wider world.
Ibrahim Ag Alhabib sets out on a musical journey between sand dunes and vaulting stars with a solemn question: “What have you got to say, my friends, about this painful time we’re living through?” The notion of a people in peril, fighting for their survival, both cultural and psychological, traverses ‘Tassili’ like a stick of rock. The decision to use acoustic guitars, unamplified percussion, the jerry can ‘calabash’ and hand claps, suggest a great deal more than a closeness between these musicians and their desert – more like a communion.
‘Tenéré Taqqim Tossam’ is a declaration of love, tempered by respect and humility, for that desert landscape which is seemingly so demanding, so stingy with its water, but whose beauty and mystery are enough to quench the spiritual thirst that irks the soul of desert people and which they call ‘assouf’. Tunde Adebimpe’s added vocals reinforce the humility, even vulnerability, which that relationship requires. In the desert’s gruelling natural environment, everyone has to make sure that their honesty and integrity remain intact. That’s precisely what Ibrahim sings about in ‘Tameyawt’, an almost whispered song that invites us into the Saharan night to join him in spirit. Or in ‘Walla Illa’, which is about a turbulent love affair that slips and slides between pain and hope. Women, whose voices were so present on previous Tinariwen albums, have disappeared from this one, but never have they been so constantly invoked, especially in the songs ‘Tamiditin Tan Ufrawan’, ‘Isswegh Attay’ or ‘Tilliaden Osamnat’.
Tinariwen’s music and sensibility have always been close to the American Blues and on ‘Tassili’ they re-enact the emotions of an individual who finds himself face to face with loneliness and doubt, gripped by torment, the prisoner of inextricable circumstances (‘Djeredjere’). But that individual also manages to find hope in the strength of his community (‘Imidiwan Wan Sahara’) or in the simple pleasure afforded by insignificant daily moments, as on the song ‘Takest Tamidarest’, sung by Abdallah, which drops us right in the middle of the desert, with its slow-baked pace that lends itself to pure contemplation of man’s surrounding and to profound inner meditation. For that reason, ‘Tassili’ isn’t just an extraordinary musical moment, in which Tinariwen repossess their own art to the extent that they feel completely relaxed about inviting others into their world, it’s also a shared human experience of rare quality.
(Translated from the French by Andy Morgan).