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The Radio Tisdas Sessions
World Village (www.worldvillagemusic.com)

This recording arrives freighted with legends. The members of Tinariwen belong to the Touareg, the romantic indigo-clad North African nomads of the Sahara desert whose men veil. They were fighters in the Touareg insurgency against the Malian government, which lasted from the 60's to the mid-90's. In military camp in Libya, they were exposed to Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, and picked up electric guitars to create a rebel music based on adaptations of traditional songs. After a ceasefire was declared, Tinariwen's members returned to Mali in 1999, where they continue to pursue the Touareg cause, now with music rather than guns. The Radio Tisdas Sessions was recorded in a studio in Kidal, with the production of British guitarist Justin Adams and French world music group Lo'Jo. Because electricity is rationed in Kidal, the tracks had to be recorded between 7 PM and midnight, over a period of two weeks.

But its best to forget all the amazing stories and approach the music on its own merits. The structure of most songs is basic. The lead singer does a verse, with an electric guitar following the melody quite closely. This is followed by a verse sung by a chorus of voices (including some women). Then the guitar takes a solo, mainly reproducing the basic melody, sometimes venturing a little further. The instrumentation is rudimentary: a lead guitar, an understated backing guitar, on occasion a bass, and elementary percussion. The songs are mostly slow, stately, intense, and the overall effect is simply mesmerizing.

The star of the group is founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabibe, who sings and plays lead on the most impressive songs, and is responsible for the most inventive guitar work. His most powerful playing is heard on "Zin Es Gourmeden," a slow, raucous desert blues, punctuated by ululations from the female chorus. A series of solo vocal verses, sung choruses, and guitar solos, "Zin Es Gourmeden" is an intense, measured burn. Ibrahim's ardent vocals and ringing-bell guitar also shine on "Le Chant des Fauves" and "Mataraden Anexan." "Imidiwaren" features Kheddou Ag Ossad on vocals and solo guitar, sounding like John Lee Hooker's Touareg second cousin on a blues dirge. "Bismallah," clearly a religious song from the title, features Kheddou backing himself on acoustic guitar.

The sound sometimes reminds me of deep Mississippi blues and of Ali Farka Toure on Talking Timbuktu, and sometimes of the lilting Sudanese music produced by Abdel Gadir Salim or Muhammad Wardi when they accompany themselves on 'ud. The blues feel is certainly authentic and not borrowed from Bob Dylan. You can hear the profound affinities between Malian Tuareg music and acoustic blues on the cut, "'Yali' War Song" by an "anonymous Tuareg elder" recorded in 1930 (on The Secret Museum of Mankind: Music of North Africa from Yazoo). The stories about Tinariwen are wonderful, but you don't need to know them to tell that this is the real thing. - Ted Swedenburg

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