Although Halloween night was cold and cloudy in Santa Cruz, the desert winds blew in soft and sultry toward the Kuumbwa Jazz Center to quite possibly one of the finest concerts of the year of 2004 in my California beach town. On stage that night was the Kel Tamashek ensemble Tinariwen from Mali. These high-energy musicians came out in traditional costume with driving electric guitars and call and response singing. They mostly performed music from their latest release, Amassakoul. When they came on, the audience many of them, who were in Halloween costume, could not keep still. As one can hear from their two releases on World Village this is a band whose music is not only mesmerizing but is destined to find wide appeal to many listeners of all ages.
Although Tinariwen has recorded many cassettes throughout their 20-year career (the typical medium in African countries), this is only their second CD. As would be expected from their first CD The Radio Tisdas Sessions. Amassakoul is an extraordinary blend of twangy guitar driven blues/rock with the tradition of chanting and clapping of the Kel Tamashek. Singing in their native language, Tamashek, this worldly group manages to create the atmosphere of exoticism without having to be obscure in their choice of instruments. Electric guitars prevail in their sound reminding one of Delta blues colliding with West African rhythms. Even though one could mention some of the great blues guitarists from Mali, most notably, Ali Farke Toure, Afel Bocoum, Lobi Traore, Boubacar Traore and of course Habib Koite, Tinariwen is from a different tradition and thus brings to their music a whole new set of sounds and proving that this is the group that has set the standards for modern Tamashek music. The name “Tinariwen” translates as “empty places” and they have become known for inventing a new style of music This style has been given the name “Ishuma” which is translated as “unemployed” and refers to their exiled people after the wars in the latter part of the 20th century in their region of Africa.
The Kel Tamashek people have been given the derogatory Arabic name “Touareg” which means “abandoned by god.” They prefer to call themselves Kel Tamashek (or Imochagh, Imajirhen). Kel Tamashek means those people who speak the Tamashek language. They were traditionally nomads and if you think of Saharan desert people riding camels and wearing turbans you would not be wrong. (The men are the ones who cover their faces, as they are warriors and the coverings not only protect them from the sun and sand but also preserve their dignity by hiding their emotions). The women take a dominant role in the home life of their encampments and wear long headscarves but do not necessarily cover their faces.
Amassakoul begins with the title song “Ammassakoul ‘N’ Tenere”, (translated as “The Traveler in the Desert”) and their guitars come in with the trance-like rhythms of the Kel Tamashek, something akin to moving at a camel’s pace whether it participating in a desert race or just traveling with the caravan on a hot Saharan morning. The song was written by the group’s founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, vocalist, poet, guitarist, and composer of most of the songs on the album. Like most of the group’s songs, ” Ammassakoul ‘N’ Tenere” speaks of desert life-the hardships of nomadic people as well as the love and nostalgia for this life-style. “You who are organized, assembled, walking together. Hand in hand, you’re living a path which is empty of meaning. In truth, you’re all alone.”
“Arawan”, is a rap song written by Alhousseini Abdoulahi about the town of Arawan. Besides the group rapping along with strumming their electric guitars, we hear the rhythm kept by hand clapping and the haunting uulations of their one female member, Mina Walet Oumar. (Formerly her sister was also in the band, but she died earlier this year).
The album ends with “Assoul” an instrumental piece written by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. He plays a traditional flute while the rest of the band creates a drone behind his flute evoking a long night by a desert fire.
Tinariwen is also the group (along with France’s Lo’Jo) who is most closely associated with The Festival in the Desert which occurred for the first time in January of 2001 and has become widely popular. There is currently a compilation recording titled The Festival in the Desert released on World Village (see my review for PopMatters) and now even a DVD of the event.
Listening to any of the recordings of Tinariwen one can be very glad that these musicians met in a rebel camp while fighting for Colonel Ghadaffi and that they traded their guns for guitars.