Arguably the foremost band to put modern music of Saharan nomads on the map, Tinariwen is back, and I am thankful. Not because there’s been a shortage of great sounds from Kel Tamasheq artists in the two years since previous release Emmaar – Bombino, Mdou Moctar, and Imarhan, for example. In spite of how much they deserve to be able to rest on their laurels, they continue to push. They temper their rock star status with artistic integrity, as all truly great rock bands should. Their position at the forefront of a cultural movement – the globalization of a music scene often called Tuareg desert blues – never seems to come into conflict with their sheer creativity and interest in making great music.
Unfortunately, certain sectors of the populace have had no qualms about starting a conflict with the collective, made up of a semi-rotating crew of musicians who have long engaged in rebellion against fundamentalist and extremist political parties in their home state of Mali. Founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib saw the execution of his father in 1963. Vocalist and guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida was kidnapped by the paramilitary group Ansar Dine in 2013. In July of this year, they found themselves on the receiving end of hatred once again – this time in the form of Facebook commenters who responded to an ad for a show in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with words of vitriol and threats of physical violence. Still, the band has continued to face hatred with grace, skill, and admirable persistence.
Amadjar, Tinariwen’s newest, sees them continue to rise with impressive friends by their side. Guest artists include multi-instrumentalist and Nick Cave collaborator Warren Ellis, Mauritanian griots Noura Mint Seymali and Jeiche Ould Chighaly, drone doom artist Stephen O’Malley, Particle Kid’s Micah Nelson, experimental rock icon Rodolphe Burger, and acoustic mainstay of the DIY scene Cass McCombs. This all-star cornucopia adds new texture to the style Tinariwen has developed and refined so well, that outlaw country twang-meets-stinging blues rock-meets-desert psychedelia that immediately identifies a group as part of this particular Sahara scene.
Slow opener “Tenere Maloulat” paints an arid landscape with the help of Warren Ellis on fluid violin, sketching the mirages that the solitary narrator bemoans as frightening and confusing. Ellis appears again on “Zawal”, this time taking a backseat to Seymali and Chighaly, whose reckless ardin and distorted electric guitar, respectively, add acid-washed energy to the mix. Hot, vivid dusk accompanies a story of apocalyptic violence and post-colonial legacies. And, while Tinariwen’s vocalists are known for their weathered voices, “Amalouna” sees them take on resolute energy with the help of Seymali’s own singing as they head toward a hopeful future.
Single “Taqkal Tarha” features Micah Nelson on mandolin for one of the most sprightly tunes in Tinariwen’s repertoire. Soothing “Anina” is all Tinariwen, a warm, if lyrically bittersweet, call-and-response before dawn breaks in the breezy pleas of “Madjam Mahilkamen”. Seymali returns for “Takount”, a transcendentally powerful song in sweeping triple meter in a call for unity. That leads into “Iklam Dglour” where eerie wailing strings, courtesy of Ellis and French experimental rock icon Rodolphe Burger, add to the strength of Tinariwen’s monophonic vocal lines.
“Kel Tinawen” and “Itous Ohar” have that earthy, rootsy vibe with which Tinariwen sounds entirely at home; Cass McCombs’ contributions blend in seamlessly. “Madhjar Yassouf Idjan” follows suit. “Wartilla” mourns loss of love and friendship with haunting beauty. Final track “Lalla” caps the album with splendid guitar harmonies as the band praises a lady of noble descent.
With overtly political lyrics and an inescapably political presence, Tinariwen is a band that has always made a statement with unpretentious aplomb. On Amadjar, whose name means “the unknown visitor”, they once again reflect on particular experiences of their lives with the distinct, sincere musical viewpoint that the group has put forth to pave the way to international superstardom. Tinariwen’s music has a beating heart to it and a genius for connecting the group’s specific experiences to a broader audience. No one puts the soul of the Sahara into music so intimately and ingeniously as Tinariwen, and Amadjar is a particularly well-polished jewel.