In Britain’s musical landscape there are many bands who claim to have come from a difficult background. For many laddish Brit-rockers, musicians can only be genuine if they have put hours in a terrible job, preferably in some blighted part of Britain’s post-industrial urban sprawl. Despite the undoubted drudgery of living and working in deprived towns, their experiences pale in comparison with that of Mali’s Tinariwen. Unlike that country’s other musical exports Amadou and Mariam, Tinariwen are drawn from Mali’s oppressed Tuareg nomads (several members even fought in the Tuareg rebellions of the 1990s), and their music has long been in part an expression of anger at the injustice faced by their people.
Over their career, this has for the most part been a blending of western guitars with the loping rhythms and keening vocals of the Sahara, a tried and tested formula that for the most part remains intact over the course of Tassili. The opener, “Imidiwan Ma Tennam”, is classic Tinariwen – a groove of syncopated percussion and acoustic stabs coupled with intricate lead guitar and keening vocals. Although this blueprint remains the backbone of the album, Tinariwen have made some attempts to introduce some more disparate influences into their music, recruiting TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone and Tunde Adepimbe for a handful of tracks. These are by no means poor songs, but they are not entirely successful.
Much of what appeals about a Tinariwen album is the almost otherworldly quality of the music; the combination of extraordinary back-story, unconventional song structures and an unfamiliar language creates a tremendous atmosphere, and Adepimbe’s soul croon and English lyrics damage this immersion. The same can be said for the brass section that infiltrates “Ya Messinagh”, which adds depth to the sound but detracts from the minimalism that has best served the band over their career. As a result, the album lacks some of the intensity of their previous records, but enough of what has made Tinariwen so popular remains. The skeletal “Tameyawt”, featuring mournful vocals accompanied only by a knackered acoustic, is particularly moving, and almost transports the listener to a Tuareg camp in the desert. Those expecting great variety or a leap forward their previous effort, Imidiwan, will be disappointed, but fans of Tinariwen’s powerful desert blues will be more than satisfied.