The story of Tinariwen’s formation and rise to prominence is most analogous to an unknown legend. The Northern African ensemble of Tuareg musicians was erected upon the songs and experiences of refugees and exiles in Mali, Libya, and Algeria. The central figure of the band, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, witnessed the execution of his own father when he was only 4 years old. That childhood memory in 1963 is certainly one that can never vanish; neither is another one of his early recollections: coming across a Western film where a cowboy was in possession of a guitar. Alhabib was so enamored by this object that he decided to build his own using a tin can, bicycle brake wires, and a stick. Could this misplaced child with a tin can instrument even comprehend the future that was in store for him?
Ag Alhabib obtained his first actual guitar in 1979. By then he had an ensemble of his own – fellow refugees and exiles he had met in Libyan and Algerian camps, namelessly playing weddings and parties. It was then that their small audience gave them their name: Kel Tinariwen. The People of the Deserts.
By 2001, after a decade of solely focusing on their music following a period of rebellion and engagement, Tinariwen had developed into an ever-growing ensemble, had already released their first record outside Northern Africa, and were in the midst of an international tour that gained them further critical acclaim and attention. 2007 saw the release Aman Iman, arguably their most important record to date, which caught the attention of celebrated musicians such as Robert Plant, Thom Yorke, and Trent Reznor.
Tinariwen’s new record, Tassili, is yet another chapter in the group’s long-lasting history. Over the years, they have acquired new friends and fans from across the globe; TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, as well as Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, and the legendary New Orleans-based Dirty Dozen Brass Band among them, who were all invited to participate in the recording of this new album.
Tassili was recorded in the deserts of southern Algeria – far from Tinariwen’s base in Tessalit, Mali – in an area named Tassil N’Ajjer, a former refuge during the band’s days of training under Muammar Gaddafi in the ‘80s, when the Libyan dictator was seeking to extend his territorial ambitions by recruiting Tuareg rebels. It is an open space, contained by white sand and rocky landscapes, and it was under a tent in Tassil N’Ajjer where the band developed their 5th effort in late-2010.
The first track, Imidiwan Ma Tenam sees Nels Cline discreetly contribute his groovy yet almost ambient guitar work to the track that still manages to keep close the soulful familiar desert blues of Tinariwen. The words and language are foreign to our ears, yet they give no cause to a feeling of misplacement. The music is carrying the listener to a new land, with entirely different cultures and sonic undercurrents.
In the Kyp Malone featured second track Asuf D Alwa, the TV on the Radio singer’s contribution is nearly unnoticeable. He croons in the background as do the rest of the band members. He has joined the band in this desert-centre, humming along them, and not just merely supplying a familiar voice. These powerful yet unassuming guest collaborations, which are also evident in the album’s third and sturdiest track Tenere Taqqim Toassam, are certainly strong points on the album, allowing it a composition of unalloyed harmony and peace.
The impression one gets listening to the almost-natural voices and instruments of Malone, Adebimpe, and Cline is of a myriad of different cultures coming together at this center of the world. Similar to its function in the 1980s, the region of Tassil N’Ajjer is once again a refuge, yet this time, not for rebels, but for musicians of all kinds from all places; Malone and Adebimpe from Brooklyn; Cline from Los Angeles, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from the city of New Orleans; all joining hands and instruments in this African desert, making the language barrier practically unnoticeable.
The celebrated horns of The Brass Band bring the Northern Africans and their melody to Louisiana in Ya Messinagh, offering an exceptional infusion of what is often labeled as desert blues with New Orleans jazz – again a demonstration of cultures coming together through music. Walla Illa takes Tinariwen back home – wherever that may be for lifelong exiles and refugees – yet they are not alone; again they are aided by the comforting croons of Malone and Adebimpe who with precise and explicit harmony guide the track home.
Home, once more, is the Algerian desert, which serves as an intermediary for these civilizations. The music that springs from this gathering flourishes as the album advances. By the second-half, this band of exiles, having met and collaborated with great acquaintances on their journey, find a new home once again. This could be symbolic of their various international expeditions, or maybe even their relentless travels as former rebels and musicians; that constant search for home along with the pledge to forever cherish one’s roots and origins. The modern collaborative first-half of Tassili transfigures into a more traditional second-half, as the band does indeed return to its roots with acoustic, more folk-based songs. Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone reappear on only two tracks of this half (the hymn-like Imidiwan Win Sahara and Iswegh Attay, the album’s penultimate track), like an old friend dropping by. The rest lay in the hands of the original ensemble, who again, play and sing with their hearts, a feeling of longing resonating through their Tamashek-sung language.
Loss is, in fact, a notion fully evident throughout the album. Each and every one of the musicians contributing to Tassili have experienced loss one way or another. Those of Tinariwen have lost their homes, their bandmates, and most surely loved ones in their war-torn continent. Nels Cline whose sole contribution to the album’s first track is undoubtedly a highlight, experienced the loss of former Wilco member Jay Bennett along his bandmates some years ago as well, and who can forget the tragedies of hurricane-stricken Louisiana in 2005? The Dirty Dozen Brass Band are certainly no strangers to destitution either. Although the recording of this album preceded it, the death of TV on the Radio bassist Gerard Smith mere months ago has surely had its effects on Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone who so fittingly contribute to the music with their trademark croons.
Every living being is capable of longing. Longing for return, for one more encounter with a lost loved-one, or longing to simply find the home that one never had to begin with. We long and look back; both are instincts inescapable to the strongest of individuals, and they are both, in a sense, founded on nostalgia. The musicians of Tinariwen and those contributing to their music have created a nostalgia entirely unknown to us; wordlessly depicting lands and people we know very little of yet listen to with unfamiliar ears, but what is significant is that they make us care, and they invite us along on this journey, not to make us long and suffer, but to make us appreciate what remains: instruments that gleam, voices that chant with tranquility, and a center where it all comes together.
What is contained in that circle may vary; some gather and create music that defies both language and distance, some find faith, others are comforted with the simple notion of closure. What matters most is that such a circle exists, and that we are capable of obtaining it. Tinariwen’s hour-long journey on Tassili proves that.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.