The group Tinariwen are often associated with just one image: Touareg rebels with machine gun in hand and electric guitar slung over the shoulder. The band discarded this cliché on their fifth album, Tassili. The founding members abandoned their weapons long ago. On this new album they have engineered a minor aesthetic revolution by setting aside the electric guitar-which made them famous-turning to acoustic sounds, recorded right in the heart of the desert, the cradle of their culture, source of their inspiration. You might call this a return to the essence of their art, a return which, paradoxically, has also opened the doors to intriguing collaborations with members of TV On The Radio, Nels Cline (Wilco's guitarist), and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
There is some truth in that cliché of the soldier-musician. In the 1980s, Ibrahim, Abdallah, Hassan, "Japonais," and Kheddou began to play together in the town of Tamanrasset in southern Algeria. They spent several years in a military training camp in Libya before a Touareg rebellion broke out simultaneously in Mali and Niger and sent them onto the field of battle in the southern Sahara. Their songs, recorded on cassettes scattered far and wide, helped to broadcast the message of a rebel movement that set out to promote the rights of nomadic people suffering under repressive and distant governments. When peace was signed in 1994...
their demobilization coincided with profound changes in the way of life of those desert people, whose traditions had been upended by years of drought. Such calamities forced into exile many young Kel Tamashek-the people who speak Tamashek, the language of the Touareg. Tinariwen became the spokespeople of that generation.
It was in the embers of this social trauma that Tinariwen caught fire and went global. The group toured the world, headlining at various important festivals including the Eurockéennes de Belfort in France, Glastonbury in the UK, and Coachella in the U.S. Their albums Aman Iman (2007) and Imidiwan (2009) were lauded by the media and attracted the praises of Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Thom Yorke, Brian Eno, and Carlos Santana, with whom Tinariwen performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2006. This success and recognition didn't alter the spirit of their musical style, mixing spiky guitars with the lyrical poetry that celebrates the sacred union between a people and their environment, and reflects painful collective circumstances.
These circumstances have become considerably harder in recent months, to the point where the group were forced to record their new album far from their base in Tessalit, northern Mali, which is now deemed too insecure to visit. Sticking with their desire to return to the roots of their music, and rediscover the age-old habits of their art, out in the wild, with acoustic guitars and unamplified percussion, they opted instead to record out in the deserts of southern Algeria. It was in this lunar landscape of white sand and rocky outcrops which lends itself so powerfully to introspection and deep feeling, that musicians and technicians gathered between November and December 2010. The wind that made the tent frames creak, the sand that invaded the electric equipment, the constant chugging of the electricity generators, were just some of the intrusions to overcome.
In this natural open space it was decided to approach the sessions in an unorthodox manner and, unlike most studios, let the musicians give their inspiration free rein during seemingly endless sessions around the campfire. It took three weeks to gather all the songs on Tassili. Some are recent. Others were dug up out of an older, traditional repertoire.
During the last week of recordings the singer Tunde Adebimpe and the guitarist Kyp Malone from the New York band TV On The Radio arrived at the camp. Out in the desert, the contributions of the two musicians on five songs and later additions by guitarist Nels Cline and the horns of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, recorded in New Orleans, give Tassili the intriguing character of an album that reaches deep into the essence of Tinariwen's art while simultaneously opening itself to the wider world.
Saturday, April 14, 2014
Nourse Theater, San Francisco
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This event is sponsored in part by a grant from the