The North African band’s first two albums finally see a proper Stateside release on high-end vinyl. They never sounded better.
BY CARL HANNI
I hail from Tucson, ground zero for an amorphous, dubiously extant genre known as ‘desert rock.’ But everyone with any global musical vision knows by now that the true desert rock is from North Africa and the most famous of all deserts, the Sahara, and that Tinariwen is one of the acts that first clued in the rest of the planet that something new was happening musically in that volatile part of the world.
Formed in the 1980s in Libyan camps for Tuareg (or Kel Tamashek) refugees from Mali, the millennium+ old desert nomads laid down their weapons for guitars and drums and birthed a musical revolution that has since become an essential stop on the global musical tour for adventurous armchair travelers. They also helped found the now famous Festival in the Desert, held every year (security allowing) in the desert in northern Mali. And like most revolutions, they have encountered resistance and persecution from various powers-that-be; it’s an on-going struggle, with many twists and turns, that will most likely keep playing itself out indefinitely.
The group’s most recent albums are the acclaimed Tassili, from 2011, and last year’s Emmaar, both released on the Anti- label. Now, Modern Classics Recordings and Light In The Attic have done us all a huge service by releasing remastered versions of their first two CD releases (following several cassette-only releases) on high-end vinyl, The Radio Tisdas Sessions from 2001 and Amassakoul (originally titled World Village) from 2004. This is the first time either of these stupendous records have been released on LP, and Light In The Attic stepped up to the task with obvious relish: they feature the best album covers money can buy, fat, juicy vinyl, tremendous graphics and liner notes and superb remastering. It’s literally impossible to see how they could have done anything better.
The Radio Tisdas Sessions, recorded in the radio station of the same name in Kidal, Mali, features ten tracks of deeply hypnotic, mid-to-down tempo, guitar, percussion and chant driven music that beautifully manifests Tinariwen’s less-is-more approach. Led by the quietly charismatic front man and principal songwriter Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Tinariwen have a collective approach that features four of the five guitar player/vocalists stepping up to take the lead at some point, fleshed out by a percussionist and 3 female back up vocalists. Produced by Jah Wobble and Sinead O’Conner guitar player Justin Adams and ‘French global troubadour band Lo’Jo,’ The Radio Tisdas Sessions was a game changing introduction to Tinariwen and a landmark, essential release for anyone interested in music of the world.
Their second international release, Amassakoul, was a huge step forward in every way. Featuring several new members, and more prominent female participation, the eleven tracks on Amassakoul are more intricate, more diverse and wider ranging, while retaining the essential, hypnotic approach of the previous record. The production really steps up, introducing all sorts of new flavors and textures, with a harder, more rock edge. Most tracks feature multiple, intertwined guitar parts, bass, percussion and lead and chorus vocals, with flute, handclaps and native instruments like the derbouka and calebass added in. Close your eyes and you could hear the hypno-drone of Junior Kimbrough’s hill country blues on any number of songs; others like “Aldhechen Manin” and “Chet Boghassa” add in a funky edge to the drone, while “Arawan” sounds like a long lost desert psychedelic template.
While it’s impossible to separate the music of Tinariwen and several other like minded regional acts from the complex, continuously evolving politics of the region that they come from, none of that matters in any tangible way when swept way in music as manifestly profound and transformative as this. I saw Tinarawin play a couple of mesmerizing shows in the last few years that were ecstatic, spirit enhancing collective experiences that also sort of made much other music seem irrelevant and shallow. This is not entertainment in the conventional sense; it’s a tap into the well of universal aural energy that opens portals into…well, that’s up to you.
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