Agadez is a Saharan city, a trading town, and an important meeting place for the different groups of Tuareg who gather there. It has a camel market. Uranium from the region’s mines passes through. There is ongoing tension between the city’s resident Tuareg and the Nigerien government, which is based in Niamey, the capital, down to the south-west, around the banks of the Niger River. The government is dominated by Hausa, a separate ethnic group, and the Tuareg complain that their resources are being exploited, their homelands shortchanged. Rebellion bubbled here in the 1990s, died down for a while, and is now bubbling again. There is no foreseeable end to it. Agadez’s airport is named after a Tuareg rebel leader who died in a plane crash.
This album’s liner notes are on the side of the rebels. The notes for Tuareg rock-blues albums invariably are. Would non-West African music fans and purchasers of albums have heard so much about Tuareg rebellions if they weren’t? If the governments of Niger and its neighbours want to stir some stir up some international grassroots sympathy for their side of things then they had better start recruiting musicians. Publicity-wise, the Tuareg are way ahead.
Group Inerane is not the first band of Tuareg rock-blues musicians to have become available to Westerners. There is Tinariwen, there is Toumast, there is Tartit, there is the unusual Etran Finatawa, a group that is composed partly of enthusiastic Tuareg and partly of graceful Wodaabe. This might be the first time that Sublime Frequencies could be mischievously accused of jumping on a bandwagon. What separates this album from the others?
The answer lies less in the individual songs than in the character of Guitars From Agadez as a whole. Group Inerane’s international debut follows the label’s usual aesthetic. The roughness of the original recordings is allowed to remain. Voices shift in and out of the range of the microphone. Feedback periodically crowds into the speaker, uniting the instruments and the singers on a single plane, giving the listener the sensation of being swamped. A buzz closes in on you, without the pauses, the aural gaps, that would let the outside world through. The musicians of Group Inerane add to it with all-over noises of their own: a drone from the guitar, the sound of people chanting, or sinuously hissing between their teeth. The voices of women come through at a high pitch, the voices of men at a lower one. Another guitar makes a metronomic back-and-forth bounce, a strong punch coming at us, an anchor in the buzz. The effect is overbearing, bullying, even.
It’s an effect that Sublime Frequencies’ releases seem to prize: that feeling of being pushed and swamped. It sits strangely with the respect they show to the older field recording labels, the Ocoras and the Nonesuches. Those other labels make the strange world orderly. They introduce you to Sri Lankans or Thais, they give you singing and percussion and woodwind, they open the world up with clear recordings, and then they open it further by providing you with liner notes written in the intent, informative tone of a good encyclopaedia. If the music confuses you then these notes are a thread you can hold in the maze. Sublime Frequencies prefers its notes passionate, sometimes to the point of being misspelled, or only semi-coherent. It would like you to get lost in the maze; it wants to build that maze around you. Where the others looked for clarity, it looks for mystification. If this album is less mystifying than some of the others then that’s because it’s following a path laid out by Tinariwen. The pattern of clapping and chanting accompanied by electric guitar is a known quantity. Guitars from Agadez is a messier version of something already familiar.