So-called “Tuareg blues” came blasting out of the Sahara less than a decade ago, in the process reaching international audiences with an ear for its particular sense of urgency. Drought, famine, poverty, and armed struggle have all fed into this feeling, which surges through electric guitars and echoes sharply through call-and-response vocals. The nomads of the Sahara and the Sahel, who by definition belong to no nation with borders, have long cultivated their own languages and cultures on the hoof. Only recently has their music landed on the world stage, through both recordings and far-reaching international tours.
Tinariwen, a massively popular Tuareg band which has put out three discs since 2001, is the current standard bearer of this movement, but Tinariwen’s not alone. Etran Finatawa (“The Stars of Tradition”), formed by Tuareg and Wodaabe musicians from Niger in 2004, offers one alternative that’s just as moving—if not quite so piercing, raw, and testosteronized. This is the group’s second international release, and it’s better than the first, mainly because all the parts seem to fit together more snugly, without losing their individual identity or collective impact. This effect is all the more striking given the contrast between the combined Tuareg and Wodaabe musical traditions, cultures, and history. They do speak different languages, after all. (The Tuareg people usually prefer to call themselves Kel Tamashek, referring to their unique written and spoken language, instead of employing a word which was invented by outsiders and is often laden with negative connotations.)
Desert Crossroads is constantly on the march, powering forward one bar at a time. But like the Texas blues shuffle, which draws inspiration from the sound of trains, a lot of the most interesting action circles around and actually leads the beat. From a distance, the galloping guitars, voices, drums, and hand claps create a sense of back-and-forth that shifts colors and feelings in different settings. You can tune into particular players or vocalists to hear how the individual parts create this effect. At the same time that the quality is suspenseful, it also saturates the music with a certain sense of inevitability. Sound familiar?
In many other respects, Desert Crossroads is a whole lot like the “regular” blues we’re used to. It’s not just the vocalized guitar lines, the blue notes, the call and response, or the essential cry. It’s a feeling, and you can get a clearer sense of what’s behind that by checking out the lyrics, translated and explained in the informative liner notes. They deal with land, history, values, and identity—and are colored by the melancholy and loss the band members have experienced by rooting themselves in a city (Niamey, Niger’s capital) instead of roaming the plains. The first track, a song called (in translation) “Respect Your Mother”, gets the album started with a Tamashek monologue by Ghalitane Khamidoune. A deep pulse gradually increases in intensity until the guitars break loose into a lanky rhythm, the melody takes form, and the lyrics fit neatly into shape.
Except for the guitars, this music is not plugged in, and the acoustic side of the band is worth checking out. For example, there are two calabash drums, resolved stereo left and right: one is “dry”, the other partly filled with water. The akayaurŽ metal percussion and tendŽ drum (particularly heavy when anchored by 70 pounds of dirt) add their own characteristic shades. The vocal element, which I’m told draws from the extensive Wodaabe polyphonic tradition, shifts back and forth between “lead” voices and choral support, though the guitar almost always serves as an additional voice, no matter what the setting.
It’s also worth checking out the “extra notes”: grace notes, trills, and various other decorations that appear all over the record. The overall contours of the melody, on both voices and guitars, are altered at key times, just like American blues guitarists might stretch or dance around a blue note, to give it emphasis. In doing so, the music endures tension and release, often ritually and repeatedly so within a given piece. But even when it comes back down to home, it still hovers a bit sometimes before it lands. That feeling of never being quite fixed pervades the entire disc, just like the people behind it, and lends it an invitingly mysterious, ethereal, trance-like quality.