In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Brian Shimkovitz, who operates the endlessly inspiring blog, Awesome Tapes from Africa, recalled that when he began the website he thought that it would only appeal to world music fans. Things turned out otherwise, as other music websites more focused on western musical styles, contemporary and past, began leading their readers to the wealth of diversity and quality that Shimkovitz had made available to download. Obviously, there has been interest from musicians in learning from and incorporating music from Africa, musicians such as, thinking back to the late ’70s and ’80s, Steve Reich, Talking Heads, Paul Simon and The Raincoats. But my impression is that while some interest was taken by fans of those artists as well as “world music fans” or ethnomusicologists, it was completely different in scale to the current openness toward and fascination with African music spread wide through the Internet today.
Shimkovitz began Awesome Tapes in Africa in the fall of 2005, just over two years before Tinariwen’s album, Aman Iman: Water is Life, wound up at number 50 on Pitchfork’s list of the year’s finest records, and “Matadjem Yinmixan” landed at 83 on the corresponding list of songs. That was where I was introduced to and blown away by their music. The wandering guitar lines of “Matadjem Yinmixan” immediately brought to mind “All Tomorrow’s Parties” but instead of the melancholy of looking back on wild, surely numbered nights on the town, the song erupted, with the outbreak of women’s voices, into something not only mesmerizing but, to my ears, heart and mind, joyous. What the root of this joy was, I still do not know, but the simultaneous nearness I felt to the spirit of the music and the distance I was kept at by its otherness from my world of knowledge and influences was provocative and intoxicating.
Now it is four years later. I have found my share of gems on Awesome Tapes from Africa, have done some tentative exploring on my own, by way of connections traced from other music and, more often, by way of sheer luck, into the vast world of music from Africa. I have learned about the traditionally nomadic Touareg people, of whom Tinariwen’s members are a part, have learned that some of these members participated in the Touareg rebellion that broke out simultaneously in Mali and Niger in 1990, after a decimating famine in the region in the 1980s. Knowing this story may add weight to descriptions of their music as desert “blues,” may put into focus what it is they have to sing the blues about, but that would be also misleading to some degree. The blues here as elsewhere have a more elemental side, are as much generated within the relationship between people and their surroundings as between one person and another. As such there is something of celebration as well, a burning love of the world one find’s oneself in that makes possible specific incarnations of music that go beyond our basic grasp of our emotions.
Tinariwen’s latest record, Tassili, was recorded in the deserts of Algeria, near a town called Djanet, in a protected region called the Tassili N’Ajer. In this landscape of sand and stone, they chose to record using only acoustic instruments. The electricity is gone, as are the astounding female voices that often grace Tinariwen recordings. Some of the songs are new and some are drawn from an older repertoire, as suits sessions spent around campfires, deep in the desert, apart from civilization. Many of the songs speak of the desert, are of it, about it, to it. There is sorrow in this music, acceptance and acknowledgment of it, but also resistance and overcoming. You can see that in the translations of the lyrics but you feel it more in the music. The scales that the guitarists drift through are no longer so unfamiliar as they once were but evoke equally something on the move, spirits as nomadic as the bodies that carry them, but nevertheless at home in the desert. Sometimes this is true of the vocal melodies as well, as on “Takkest Tamidaret,” where Abdallah Af Alhousseyni’s voice flows through like a slow, snaking river.
Tassili is Tinariwen’s first record for Anti- and sees them collaborating with some of their admirers: TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, Nels Cline, and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. All of these collaborations work, adding new textures that still feel of a piece with the band’s sound and the particular stripped-back world of Tassili. Tunde Adebimpe sounds especially excellent singing to the jealous desert on “Tenere Taqhim Tossam” and harmonizing on “Imidiwan Win Sahara,” as does The Dirty Dozen Brass Band escalating the ruminative skies of “Ya Messinagh.”
It is pleasant to think of Tinariwen out in the middle of the desert making this music, possible to think of it as the creation of an oasis, a place in the middle of a beautiful but severe landscape where one may go to receive that which is needed to live. While not wanting to get into the relative merits of water and music, let’s just say that I am not sure I could do without either at this point. And this record has been one that I have listened to a lot when nothing else would quite do. It is a place of rest, thinking, dreaming and recharging.
Group Inerane – Guitars from Agadez
Karamoko Keita – Karamoko Keita
Khaira Arby – Timbuktu Tarab
Stream: Tinariwen – “Imidiwan Ma Tennam”