Full disclosure: I think Tinariwen is the greatest band in the world right now, bar none. Anyone who hasn’t heard the Saharan collective, led for thirty years by the gravel voice and staccato guitar of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, needs to stop whatever s/he is doing right now and go listen.
As a slavish devotee of this collective of musicicians, I’m the natural demographic for The Rough Guide to Desert Blues. At the same time, though, I’m suspicious. For a while now, I’ve been aware of bands such as Terakaft and Etran Finatawa, who hail from similar geographies and utilize a similar sonic vocabulary of picked guitars, hand drums and handclaps, chanted vocals, and a certain galloping beat. For as long as I’ve known of these bands, I’ve also wondered: Are they just ripping off Tinariwen? Or are they simply drawing from the same musical and cultural well to achieve their effects? To put it somewhat differently, has “desert blues” grown into a discrete genre, like reggae and hip-hop?
Happily, the Rough Guide has arrived on the scene with 13 tracks devoted to helping me sort out the answer. Songs from artists both familiar (Ali Farka Toure, Amadou and Mariam) and obscure (Malouma, Jalilena Natu) provide a sense of the range that these musicians bring to the material. Mali, the epicenter of the movement, is well represented, but so are countries farther afield, such as Niger, Mauritania, and Western Sahara (now annexed by Morocco).
The musicians on this record are emphatically not simply mimicking the success of Tinariwen — or anyone else. To be sure, there are similarities — Terakaft was founded by two former members of the group, and the vocals are every bit as gruff and gravelly. But “Ténéré Wer Tat Zinchegh” is a solid midtempo tune that can stand proudly alongside the other band’s output. Hell of a guitar solo, too.
Highlights on this record are many. “Mali Dje” by Ali Farka Toure is one of the best songs off his Niafunke album and features a loping rhythm, while Tinariwen’s “Tenhert” (taken from their 2009 album Imidiwan: Companions) features spitfire vocals that nearly trip over themselves, yet somehow never lose the beat. Tamikrest’s “Aratane N’adagh” closes the record in haunting fashion, as sinister, thundrous percussion rumbles underneath mournful guitar — and human — moans.
There are many surprises. Malouma’s “Yarab” is built around strong female vocals and layers of kora riffs and guitar hooks, while Meriem Hassan offers an equally memorable performance on “Tefla Madlouma,” with a snaky flute line to boot. Not all tracks are created equal and a few here are less than memorable, but each brings something different to the table. The songs have obviously been chosen, and arranged, with care.
The review copy of Desert Blues includes a bonus CD, an entire 11-track album from Niger’s Etran Finatawa. The inclusion of the disc is generous to say the least, and the album is memorable in itself, if not quite as lively and engaging as the cherry-picked compilation. This is one of the bands that I used to wonder about, and while there are indisputable similarities to Tinariwen’s sound and style, the emphasis on thudding percussion sets Etran Finatawa apart, while lending its own sub-Saharan spin to the genre. The vocals are different too, with the voices tending to be higher-pitched and less gravelly. Standout tracks include the languidly urgent “Ildeman”, the groove-heavy chant “Anadjibo”, and especially “Ronde”, with its fluid guitar and muezzin-like vocal delivery.
Rough Guide compilations can be hit-or-miss affairs, but this excellent package offers far more hits than misses. A booklet is included with information on the bands, while the disc includes files from the Rough Guide travel books to the area. Altogether, it’s an impressive package. Recommended.