Search The Line of Best Fit
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Tinariwen – Tassili
30 August 2011, 09:00 Written by Janne Oinonen

Although they haven’t staged the campaign single-handedly, Tinariwen deserve plenty of credit for opening the ears of rock audiences to the diverse delights of African music.

The merits of Tinariwen’s music – imagine John Lee Hooker-originated single-chord boogie after it’s marinated in the scorching Sahara sun for a few centuries, and you’ll have a decent likeness of the band’s hypnotic, slow-burning and sparsely funky desert blues – have obviously been the key to their international success, including slots at Coachella and Glastonbury and praise from such notables as Robert Plant and Thom Yorke. But Tinariwen also pack an image of rare potency. With some members having taken active part in the stateless, Sahara-dwelling, nomadic Tuareg peoples’ bitter on-and-off struggle against the Malian government, the loose collective’s rebel credentials are second to none. With all of Tinariwen having swapped guns for guitars years ago, the fighter-poet clichés are by now hopelessly outdated. Even so, the band’s eventful past continues to make for gripping copy, which in turn has helped encourage music fans who might not otherwise venture anywhere near the ‘World Music’ section to give Tinariwen a chance, resulting in the band achieving one of the highest profiles ever enjoyed by African musicians.

Up until now, though, Tinariwen have not appeared to pay much attention to what contemporary ‘Western’ music might have to offer to them. The most dogged proponents of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ philosophy
this side of AC/DC, recent, uniformly compelling albums such as Aman Iman (2007) and Imidiwan – Companions (2009) suggest the band continue to draw inspiration from the same battered handful of tapes that first inspired their electrified take on traditional Tuareg storytelling in the early 80′s. Tassili marks a key departure from the norm by allowing fresh elements to enter the band’s insular world. As unobtrusively respectful as their contributions are, the guests – including Wilco’s Nels Cline and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band – add a welcome element of surprise to Tinariwen’s fifth album. TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, meanwhile, prove an extraordinarily inspired addition, their haunting melodic counterpoint to the band’s raspy call-and-response chants turning ‘Tenere Taqhim Tossam’ into one of Tinariwen’s most irresistible moments so far without compromising the band’s authentic style one iota.

Elsewhere, the ululating female voices that have been a key ingredient in the past are nowhere to be heard, and electric guitars, closely shadowed by lean bass lines, another cornerstone of the Tinariwen sound, are
largely superseded by acoustic instruments. But many familiar elements remain. Although security issues near the band’s base in Tessalit, Northern Mali forced Tinariwen to record in an unfamiliar location (in southern Algeria) for the first time, their desert home continues to reign unrivalled as chief songwriter Ibrahim ag Alhabib’s main muse throughout Tassili, a constant presence both in the longing-fuelled lyrics and the skeletal, sun-bleached riffs that sound well-accustomed to an existence in the unforgiving desert terrain, avoid as they do sudden and unnecessary movement at all costs.

As such, much of Tassili could be summarised as business as usual. But the business is very good, made all the sweeter by the colour and shade provided by the surprises.

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