Graded on a Curve: Tinariwen,

Before winning a Grammy for 2011’s Tassili, the enduring Malian outfit Tinariwen had already attained a deservingly high profile. International success wasn’t immediate, however; at the point of first album The Radio Tisdas Sessions in ‘01, they’d been active for over 20 years. This week Modern Classics Recordings reissues onto double-vinyl that impressive debut and ’04’s even better follow-up, Amassakoul.

Whether it’s through their latest record Emmaar, the breakthrough of predecessor Tassili, the group’s entry on the ‘10 compilation The Rough Guide to Desert Blues, or any of their four prior discs, Tinariwen has amassed a considerable following including such celebrity aficionados as Robert Plant, Carlos Santana, Brian Eno, Henry Rollins, and Thom Yorke.

Famous fans aren’t unusual, but the variety of these enthusiasts is worthy of note, surely indicative of the breadth of their listenership overall. Hippies, blues nuts, experimenters, punks, Alt/indie mavens, and of course those stereotypical lefties parking a used Volvo in the garage with the stereo tuned to NPR so not to miss the weekly edition of World Café.

Unlike other examples, Tinariwen has managed to conquer broader recording situations and specifically the introduction of outside contributors (Nels Cline, Kyp Malone, Josh Klinghoffer, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Matt Sweeney) without damage to their sound. This ability to bend and adapt is something they share with the great Malian vocalist-guitarist Ali Farka Touré.

But then Tinariwen’s music, considered a major component in a later wave of the Saharan Desert Blues tradition established by Touré, is based upon dialogue and hybridization with Western genres. At the start essentially a wedding/party band, exposure to the Bobs Marley and Dylan quickly prompted Tinariwen founder-leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib to take up electric instruments, and just as importantly political concerns as the influence of Led Zeppelin, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, and others took hold.

The first Tuareg group to plug in, they developed a new style called Tishoumaren (translated: “music of the unemployed”). Different from the Western tradition of acts choosing a moniker that suits them, in this instance those doing the listening provided the name; Kei Tinariwen, which translates from the Tamashek as “The People of the Deserts.”

Likewise, as deeply as the Rock hooks dug in, Tinariwen’s circumstances and emergence proved severely unique from Western norms. To begin, they spent a significant portion of their early days training in the military camps of Muammar al-Gaddafi, and in 1990 some members fought in the Malian rebel uprising. Furthermore, in 2012 Tinariwen was targeted by the militant Islamic group Ansar Dine, causing them to record Emmaar in exile.

In the ‘80s they reportedly disseminated their art for free, encouraging grassroots distribution of music and message by playing for anybody with a blank tape. The Radio Tisdas Sessions was the first recording to make it beyond North Africa, so interested parties with a few bones in the bank will want to start experiencing Tinariwen there.

Amassakoul reveals a band of startling precision and verve. Instantaneously sprightlier than anything on Radio Tisdas, “Amassakoul ‘N’ Ténéré” employs indigenous funk via darbuka drum and sinewy bass as the crowd-sung backing grows infectious even without understanding the language. But it’s the cleanly delivered tension of the multiple guitars that distinguish Tinariwen’s output as belonging to the Sahara region.

“Oualahila Ar Tesninam” briefly opens with just call-and-response vocals, handclaps and rhythmic pulse; when the guitars enter Rock’s impact becomes promptly apparent. Distorted lines wiggle like spangled snakes grooving along a sand dune as the swiftness is maintained and the mingled voices, as subtly strange as they are catchy, add to the song’s dense fabric.

Slowing down and exuding a touch of those Desert Blues, “Chatma” changes the pace as effectively as any Westerners. While Tinariwen’s method here is largely the same as on the first two numbers, namely ample strands of guitar, deep rhythm and back-and-forth singing, the tempo and the bluesy quality assists the ear in discerning the layered complexity of what’s unfurling in such an unruffled manner.

“Arawan” integrates a rap influence into the mix. What they accomplish is out of the ordinary, complete with a wildly ululating female voice, but it’s far from harmful to the proceedings and ultimately quite enjoyable, in part because they didn’t misplace the guitars. Additionally, there’s an avoidance of mimicry, an eschewal that certainly applies to their sound on the whole. Tinariwen aren’t like Zep or Jimi or either Bob, they’re thoroughly North African, and a decade after Amassakoul’s release, refreshingly so.

Kicking it up a few notches is “Chet Boghassa,” the unwavering persistence of its cyclical patterns creating a gradually rising level of intensity accented by excellent string lines and at track’s end a tidy bout of gnarled psych-rock vigor. By contrast, “Amidinin” radiates contents under pressure, its thickness enlarged by the strength of the bass playing.

“Ténéré Daféo Nikchan” is another sweet wrinkle halfway between Mississippi Fred McDowell’s Capitol LP and the early edginess of the San Fran psychsters, plus a little gusty (or if one prefers, gutsy) fluting for good measure. “Aldhechen Manin” retains the ‘60s feel, but replaces the blues with the aura of protest rock, though it’s an uncommonly funky strain.

The flute returns for “Alkhar Dessouf,” a moody lengthier track making plain Tinariwen wasn’t attempting to streamline their work for a potential wider audience (the increased fandom would come a bit later). Lovers of tribal-psych are likely to dig it. And “Eh Massina Sintadoben” is tranced-out ragged blues of the first order.

They save the biggest curveball for last; instead of going out with a rapid-fire bang a la “Amassakoul ‘N’ Ténéré,” which could’ve easily happened had the record been shepherded by more opportunistic interests (Jah Wobble/Robert Plant associate Justin Adams reprises his role as engineer and co-producer), “Assoul” is all flute and throaty vocal drones. It’s unlike anything else on the album, a finale bringing warm eclecticism to Amassakoul’s total.

Modern Classics Recordings’ new pressings are the first vinyl for both Amassakoul and Radio Tisdas, so Tinariwen fans with turntables have cause for celebration, as do admirers of African music, newcomers especially. Of the two, Amassakoul gets the nod by a very slim margin; each offers assured, distinct flavor, but the diversity of the second makes it slightly preferable.


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