25 Sept 2014

Album Review: Tinariwen "The Radio Tisdas Sessions" / "Amassakoul"

Reviewed by Todd Leiter-Weintraub
New vinyl issues from Modern Classics / Light In the Attic Records

Let me begin this review by stating that I am not an expert in any African music. My knowledge isn’t that broad and it isn’t that deep. But recently, I have been on a bit of an African music tear, listening to a lot of music from the continent. It’s a sudden interest that has been sparked by the release of several outstanding albums and retrospectives, including releases from: Bombino, The Dur-Dur Band, Joseph Kabasele, Etran Finatawa, and Tinariwen.

Speaking of Tinariwen, that band’s first two albums have been given their first-ever vinyl release by the folks over at Light In the Attic Records. And they are something very wonderful, indeed.

Nobody is going to argue against the fact that the blues is an American art form. But it does have its roots in sub-Saharan Africa. And, in recent years, it has become ever more apparent that the musicians of North Africa, Tinawiren among them, are reclaiming this music for their own continent and for themselves.

The Tuaregs are a nomadic people that have been further displaced by political and social upheaval in the region around Libya and Mali. If anyone has the right to sing the blues, it is they. And reading the translations, their suffering is apparent:

“You who are organised,
assembled, walking together.
Hand in hand, you’re living.
A path which is empty of meaning.
In truth, you’re all alone”

A people without a country.

Getting to the sound of the band: it is definitely Arabic; with hand percussion and modal melodies that are typical of the region. And yet, electric guitars help make the overall effect, somehow, very familiar. The vocals are, for the most part, sung by a single lead singer, being responded to by a larger chorus of voices; it’s somewhat reminiscent of a gospel choir, albeit in structure only. And then there are those guitars, which, at times, can be reminiscent of Keith Richards’ rhythm playing, or even a straight 12-bar blues, if taken out of context.

But then, context is everything, isn’t it? And while the guitars can be 'bluesy', context constantly reminds one that this is no "Sticky Fingers".

Of the two albums being offered by Light In the Attic, the debut, "Radio Tisdas", is a bit more open, and a bit more Saharan—less Western. The electric guitars are less rock and more rolling sand dunes. In fact, the first two songs ("Le Chant De Fauves" and "Nar Djenetbouba") barely have anything of the sound of the blues, outside of some of the syncopation and a bit of the shuffling rhythm. It’s only when the third track ("Imidiwaren") opens with a single guitar playing what could only referred to as a 'jam', that the Western influence becomes apparent. The next song, "Zin Es Gourmeden" does the same, only with more of an edge. From there the album rolls along, pulling you in with its syncopated rhythms and group chemistry. It sounds like a communal celebration of all that is right (and wrong) with the world.

The second album, "Amassakoul", swings a bit harder, even rocks in places. The guitars have more presence and even a bit of grit.

The first song "Amassakoul 'N'Ténéré" begins with a shuffling rhythm that gets the head nodding and the shoulders swaying. "Oualahila Ar Tesninam" follows with a quicker tempo and the guitars turned up to the point where you can hear a little bit of distortion. Definitely more rock; even a bit dangerous. While the rest of the album does have quieter moments, even then "Amassakoul" sounds a bit more desperate: edgier and ready to take off into full-rock mode. But it never does, and that is no detriment to the music. Because the percussion, the handclaps, and the modality of it all provide the context that reminds you that you are listening to a foreign sound  and you shouldn’t really expect to rock. Just roll with it. It’s lovely stuff.

"The Radio Tisdas Sessions" is available on vinyl here.
"Amassakoul" is available on vinyl here.


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