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Tinariwen - Tassili

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Artist: Tinariwen

Album: Tassili

Label: Anti-

Review date: Aug. 25, 2011


Tinariwen - "Tenere Taqqim Tossam" (Tassili)


For the better part of three decades, Tinariwen’s history has become more and more tightly woven with the larger narratives of our time. First, there is the legendary origin story: A group of Tuareg rebels, who first acquired an acoustic guitar in Mali in 1979, relocate to Libya to receive full military training. There, they flesh out the band before returning home in 1989 to fight in the Tuareg Rebellion, eventually laying down guns for electric guitars full-time. The fight lived on, however, in their charged take on traditional Saharan guitar music, radiating out to Tuareg communities throughout the Western Sahara and eventually beyond. Carlos Santana and Robert Plant were the first to flock to the band, soon to be joined by the likes of Justin Adams, Elvis Costello and the global festival circuit.

With the release of Tassili, the knit has been drawn tightest. Tinariwen is now labelmates with Tom Waits on Anti-. Members of Wilco and TV on the Radio make appearances on the record. The rebellious sentiment that has propelled the band for 30 years has now spread throughout the Middle East. After more than three decades, Tinariwen has come to embody a sublime duality. Its members are ambassadors of popular music, as well as of a rich but marginalized culture. They are historical participants even as they have come to be a reflection of major world trends. And in doing these things, they have transcended the posturing endemic to rock ‘n’ roll to strike at the core tenets of self-determination that has driven guitar music from the start.

If there was ever a time to make a statement album, to debut in a fury of grandeur that is timely, poignant and spectacular, now would be it for Tinariwen. But this is a band that is too wise to do such a thing. At its root, the music is not necessarily one of rebellion, but of resilience and commitment. That’s why Tassili so effectively reaches maximum impact by going back to basics. The group lays down the electric guitars and the amplification in favor of acoustic guitars and hand drums to illuminate why their sound has such staying power in the first place.

Whether or not you understand what’s being said, the tone and type of stories being told are obvious, a testament to a band that is deeply in tune with the most primal human emotions. What becomes clear very quickly is that this is an album of contemplation and reflection. The one-two punch that starts a Tinariwen album usually defines the conversation, and that’s no exception here. But whereas Amassakoul‘s “Amassakoul N Tenere” and “Oualahila Ar Tesninam” set a determined and challenging pace, Tassili‘s “Imidiwan Ma Tennam” and “Asuf D Alwa” isn’t a call to action, but to listen. And the stories that they tell have a depth that is indescribable. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib leads the group both by voice and by guitar, supported by a unified chorus of voices and backup guitars that is difficult to quantify. It’s this firm base that swells up to meet Alhabib’s call as he darts in and out of the multiplying rhythms, pulling the threads into an even tighter and more beautiful weave.

Perhaps most impressive is that in what is arguably the band’s most traditional record to date, Tinariwen manages to loop in highly recognizable people and sounds without any effort. When Tunde Adebimpe shows up on “Tenere Taqqim Tossam,” not only does his voice make sense, it doesn’t call attention to itself. The pattern isn’t disrupted, just enhanced. Tinariwen doesn’t depart from tradition. Rather, they place it alongside a much wider landscape of traditions. The story remains the same. It’s just larger.

By Evan Hanlon

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