Various Artists: Songs for Desert Refugees

[9 December 2012]

By David Maine

Wow, this is a great record. Go buy it.

Okay, now that that’s out of that way: this is one of the best albums of the year. It’s full of terrific tunes by top-notch bands in the “desert blues” movement, many of which are previously unreleased and/or unreleased on CD, and the money goes to a good cause: relief for refugees of the long-simmering war in the western Sahara, which has displaced large numbers of people, disrupted the traditional nomadic way of life and caused much suffering. So buying this record will go to a good cause, and it’s full of righteous tunes. Any questions? Great. Now go buy it.

Still not convinced? Okay, fine. Here are some details.

The album kicks off with the godfathers of desert blues, Tinariwen, playing a snaky, whammy-bar inflected version of “Amous Idraout Assouf a’Alwa”. This tune has everything great about Tinariwen wrapped into one neat four-and-a-half-minute package: the rolling percussion, the trance-inducing rhythms, the rough-edged vocals, the surprising guitar. On most records, it would be a standout track. On this one, it’s par for the course.

Most of the genre’s major players are represented. Tamikrest contributes “Warktifed”, another previously unreleased track, this one a midtempo chugger featuring plenty of gravelly vocals and a hyponotic bassline. Terakeft chips in with the unreleased “Nak Essanagh”, a reflective piece that isn’t quite as incendiary as some of the other tunes here but is a good representation of the band’s work. Etran Finatawa is represented by “Gourma”, a tune from their 2012 Tarkat Tajje album, a rare instance of an established band providing a song already available elsewhere. That’s all right, though, as rising star Bombino raises the bar altogether with a 13-minute live rendition of “Tigrawahi Tikma”. More of a slow-burn than a foot-stomper, the tune’s sheer duration lends it heft, and by the second half it garners an undeniable momentum that carries the listener along. After this, there’s only the drums-and-vocals closing track, Tartit’s “Tihou Beyatene”, to take the listener home.

These are only the big-name highlights. The real revelation in this record, at least for me, was the range of previously unheard musicians who are exploring and expanding this tradition, taking it to new territories. Foremost among this group are the Ibrahim Dja Experience, whose four-minute-plus “Blues du Désert” builds from a gentle acoustic opening to a gurgling, classic-rock-worthy guitar meltdown. Nabil Baly Othman brings a sweetness and verve to the irresistible bounce of “Teswa Ténéré”, which is matched only by his vocals. Meanwhile, Toumast impresses with the ridiculously catchy “Aitma”. (I know, Toumast has been around for a while, but I never paid much attention to them before.)

If there is a criticism to be made here, it might be on the overwhelming maleness of ths compilation. There are women singers and musicians in this tradition—not as many as there are men, but they are out there. Apart from the Tartit track, which sounds like a field recording, the featured musicians here are entirely male. But singers like Mariem Hassan and Malouma can hold their own with any of the artists here, and their inclusion would have made this strong set even stronger. Of course, I’m ignorant of the logistics of this compilation; perhaps these women were asked, and didn’t care to participate, or didn’t have any available songs, or their labels wouldn’t release the rights.

In any case, the album as it stands is masterful, and certainly one of the strongest world music albums of the year. It serves equally well as an introduction to this exciting strain of guitar-based African music and as a new set of tunes for listeners already familiar with the genre. Did I mention that it’s for a good cause? So it is. So go buy it, please.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/165685-various-artists-songs-for-desert-refugees/