Tinariwen - Tassili

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Leave it to Tinariwen, those Malian Tuareg freedom fighters who’ve long since discovered how much mightier the guitar is than the gun, to both progress and go back to their nomadic desert origins on their new release. On the one hand, they recorded the album in the remote canyon region of Tassili in southern Algeria, setting up tents and recording equipment, favoring acoustic guitars over electric and letting the wide open vibes flow. On the other, they brought in members of TV on the Radio, Wilco and -most surprisingly- the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to expand upon their Saharan blues sound. The collaborations with outside musicians are not surprising, given how acclaimed Tinariwen has become among mainstream rockers. And what the guests bring to the table is neither forced nor intrusive. Before elucidating on that, though, let me say that Tassili, for all its studio-free ambitions, doesn’t sound like some ethnomusicologist’s field recording. The songs, composed mainly by guitarist and lead vocalist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, benefit from modern recording techniques while holding fast to the sandy guitar riffs, Tamashek storyteller vocals and rolling percussion that have characterized Tinariwen’s music over the course of five albums.

Familiar themes of unity, the ongoing struggle against oppression and desert life abound. This disc feels like a natural extension of the band’s previous Imidiwan (Companions), that same word figuring into two song titles on Tassili and the whole album a similarly deep musical journey into the Tuareg perspective. Tinariwen may be prospering, but their lyrics still talk about trouble among the displaced people from whence they came. A pair of consecutive songs tell of secrecy and jealousy on the part of women, which, intentionally or not, opened my ears to the fact that this is the first Tinariwen album without female vocals. They’re missed, but the compensation is getting to hear how crisply Tinariwen lays it down in predominantly acoustic style this time around, with their blues, rock, African and Arabic edges as sharp as ever. Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio fit right in to the tracks they guest on, committed to the point of contributing vocals in Tamashek as well as a touch of English. Wilco guitarist Nels Cline drills admirable electric tension into the opening piece, though the boldest step is one track featuring trumpet and saxophones, added later in New Orleans, courtesy of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The horns bring a droning, spiritual undertow similar to the role of the harmonium in qawwali music, enhancing the feel and hinting at how grand it could be if Tinariwen pursue future fusion opportunities. But for now they have Tassili, and it’s another beautifully simmering step in their growing body of work. - Tom Orr

The band's web site: www.Tinariwen.com

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