Tinariwen, Tassili (Anti-, 2011)

The African nation of Mali has produced an abundance of quality performers in recent years, most of whom come from the country's green, southern portion. A small part of the population, though, eke out a living in the quite inhospitable northern half of the country that is part of the vast Sahara desert.  These desert people are called the Tuareg, and they have often found themselves at odds with the governments of the countries across whose borders their region spans. The musical group Tinariwen was founded over thirty years ago in a camp of displaced Tuareg rebels on the Libyan side of the border.  Band leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and his bandmates eventually returned to Mali, making tapes of their music for anybody who wanted one. Slowly and steadily they built up a following, and for the last decade they have been recording internationally. On their most recent album Tassili, they sing songs of love and survival in environments that are welcoming in neither the physical nor the political sense.

While the music on Tassili does share some common ground with the modern folk music of the rest of Mali, particularly in the guitar rhythms, there are some Arabic influences as well, along with an awareness of popular music from the United States.  The musical arrangements are simple and straightforward. The vocals are generally call-and-response, with very little harmony, and the instrumentation consists of a number of guitars with some light percussion.  The end result is something of a mixed bag.  One one hand, Ag Alhabib lacks the voice and charisma of his southern compatriots.  The guitar playing, while good in a laid back sort of way, doesn't demand the listener's attention the way that the playing of Habib Koité or Amadou Bagayoko or Vieux Farka Touré does.  Having said that, Tinariwen do get some good grooves going, and the song "Tenere Taquim Tossam" (featuring some vocals in English from members of TV on the Radio) is a super blend of African rhythm with American blues and soul.

Despite the cultural differences and their very unusual history, Tinariwen are a vital contributor to the increasingly popular music coming from Mali. Tassili has its ups and downs, but Tinariwen ultimately succeed in putting the desert region of their homeland on the musical map.  Fans of African music will want to check them out, as will people looking for some guitar music of a different sort.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott

"Tenere Taquim Tossam"

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