Peter McCaughan hears a stripped back sound and a longing for a lifestyle lost on the Malian music collective's fifth album.
When listening to Tassili, it is clear that Malian guitar giants Tinariwen feel they have been out of the Sahara for too long. The album’s name refers to the Tassili N’Ajjer, a vast area of desert close to the border of Libya, imbued with equally vast historical and cultural significance.
After spending a great deal of time on the road, the band chose to record this latest release in the heart of the Tassili N’Ajjer in an attempt to bring both themselves and listeners back to the desert.
Tassili is an album with great emotion running through it, right from the hypnotic, almost brow-beaten yearning of the first track, ‘Imidiwan MaTenam’. The lyrics translate as follows:
‘What have you got to say my friends,
About this painful time we’re living through?
You’ve left this desert where you say you were born,
You’ve gone and abandoned it’
Whilst these lyrics could refer to ongoing conflicts in the group’s homeland, the longing tone of the album suggest a more personal meaning, lamenting the downfall of the nomadic desert lifestyle.
This is a theme which permeates the entire album. Even on what is, arguably, the most upbeat number, ‘Imidiwan Win Sahara’, singer Ibrahim Ag Alhabib repeats a mantra which translates as, ‘my friends from the Sahara, our freedom is gone, let’s unite or else we shall all vanish, not a single soul will be alive in the desert’. Whilst the message is similar to that of ‘Imidiwan MaTenam’, this song feels more positive, a rallying cry.
Tinariwen’s fifth studio album takes a much more stripped back acoustic approach than their acclaimed 2009 release, Imidiwan. Most tracks feature low key, throbbing percussion along with layers of warm toned acoustic guitar, topped off vocally with Ag Alhabib’s mournful baritone and chorus singing from the rest of the band.
However, Tassili is no one trick pony. The album constantly shifts in tone - it's both technically impressive and emotionally complex. The assouf style which the band espouses is reminiscent in some ways to the Delta blues of Robert Johnson et al, a pedal drone with intricate ‘lead’ playing.
However, to describe Tinariwen as an African counterpart to this western style (as has been done by critics in the past) is unfair as it derides a rich vein of traditional music which the band has both been inspired by, and made their own.
Whilst a largely acoustic recording, the electric guitars have not disappeared altogether. Indeed, the crunchier, distorted sounds which characterised previous albums are present, if fleetingly, on ‘Tamiditin Tan Ufrawan’ (My Secretive Girlfriend).
Also worth noting are the many guest appearances from other artists, including vocals from TV on the Radio and guitar from Nels Cline of Wilco. The contributions of these ‘special friends’ add little to the album, seem something of a hip seal of approval.
However, the additions from the least high profile guests - two members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band - are extremely satisfying. Their squealing horns bring a frenetic sense of disorder to ‘Ya Messinagh’, adding to the feeling of tension and yearning. If there is one track on the album worthy of cranking up to 11, this is it.
The production of Tassili is crisp and luxurious. An extremely intimate approach has been taken, comparable to Rick Rubin’s work on Johnny Cash’s American albums. Sadly, one slightly irritating flaw of this style is that there are distracting breathing sounds audible on some tracks. It is possible that these noises are intended to add to the hypnotic and soothing lullaby feel of tracks such as ‘Walla Illa’, but unfortunately they are often just annoying.
Luckily this is one small distraction from what is otherwise an album with an extraordinarily vital, human feel. If Tinariwen returned to the desert for inspiration, they found it in spades.