Tinariwen continue to shift perceptions of what ‘world’ music can be.
John Doran 2011
It’s been a good year for African desert rock. In April, young Tuareg bruisers Tamikrest released their second (and best) album, Toumastin, and now the heavyweight champs Tinariwen are back to deliver a TKO in the form of Tissali, their fifth long-player. The band formed from members of the Sub-Saharan diaspora stranded in a Libyan refugee camp in 1979, returning home after a ceasefire between the Malian government and rebel forces was agreed in the 1990s. But it has really been during the last decade that the band have started to gain an international following thanks to certain progressive Western festivals and a dramatic shift in perceptions of what so-called ‘world’ music means: there has been a general movement of emphasis away from the authentic and worthy to the more modern and populist.
While what they play is demonstrably Tuareg assouf music, their development dislocated from home in refugee camps opened them up to non-Malian influences, especially from Algeria and Egypt. But perhaps most importantly they got to hear bootlegged cassettes of popular Western rock acts such as Santana, Led Zeppelin, Dylan and Hendrix. Their music is often referred to as ‘desert blues’ which is misleading as the band were unaware of this music until visiting America in the last decade, despite the clear influence of heavy electrified RnB. This is worth mentioning as it’s good not to think of Tinariwen as having a ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ sound.
In fact some may be up in arms at the fact that this album features guest spots from Nels Cline of Wilco, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band of New Orleans, but really all Tinariwen are doing is completing a circle of sorts. Such people should be reassured, that if anything, this album sounds more traditional than 2009’s Imidiwan: Companions, because alongside new numbers there are old compositions such as the lovelorn Iswegh Attay and the sumptuous and languid Walla Illa. The only track to sound even remotely different to what we have come to expect and love from them is Tenere Taqqim Tossam, simply because of Tunde’s lush vocals. It’s just that, this time, the fact that he is vocally a dead ringer for world music devotee Peter Gabriel gains his presence an extra layer of irony.