Photo: Marie Planeille / Pitch Perfect PR

Tinariwen Take an Intriguing Outlaw Country Turn on ‘Amatssou’

Tinariwen link Nashville and North Africa on Amatssou in ways well suited to a definition of outlaw country that includes their rebellious rock.

19 May 2023

Geographic gaps notwithstanding, there has always been some stylistic proximity between the tichoumaren music popularized by Kel Tamasheq musicians and some of the most moving US American roots and country styles. Sparse, bluesy melodies, deeply felt lyrics, and nimble musicianship come together often in both cases, impassioned and often melancholy expressions of real life and the struggles that comprise it for the artists at hand.

In the new Tinariwen release Amatssou, these sonic and spiritual connections take more literal forms. Produced by Daniel Lanois, Amatssou puts the Kel Tamasheq stars in musical dialogue with banjo player Wes Corbett, multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, and Lanois himself. The resulting collaborations come together with a smoldering brilliance as the keen sounds of Tinariwen’s guitars, drums, and voices stretch out in peaks over rippling beds of pedal steel and flowing strings. It fits nicely into the Tinariwen body of work (2019’s Amadjar featured Micah Nelson, Cass McCombs, and other acoustically-inclined guests) while standing out as distinct among their exemplary offerings thus far. 

Above all, the lyrics on Amatssou are resolute. Tinariwen sing of martyrs, battles, unity, and hopes for the future, advocating for justice. The opening track, “Kel Alghalm”, exemplifies their overall stance with an admonition against silence in the face of global inequities that are well-suited to the rousing percussion and Corbett’s bright banjo strumming that drive it forth. Together, they pull the group’s signature weighty guitars forward at a galloping pace, lending themselves well to the song’s powerful themes. Following is “Tenere Den”, a slightly cooler but still spirited song on which Kaplin’s fiddle echoes the central motifs that Alhassani Ag Touhami plays on guitar. Later, Kaplin brings banjo and pedal steel to uptempo “Anemouhagh”, filling out the piece to stand out as one of the album’s most dynamic moments.

Many of Amatssou‘s highlights are mellower, though not at the expense of strength. “Arajghiyine” and “Jayche Atarak”, featuring Lanois’ pedal steel and keys, are especially dreamy, sometimes haunting, for those resonant undercurrents. Airy synths on the latter underscore the epic stories that Ibrahim Ag Alhabib alludes in a weathered voice. On the midtempo “Ezlan”, Kaplin contributes pedal steel and violin, rising like steam around Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni’s exquisite guitar work. That same pedal steel wafts around Ag Alhabib’s voice at the end of the album on “Nak Idnizdjam” to wistful effect.

Three tracks feature only musicians recording locally in a makeshift studio in Algeria; these are particularly refreshing in terms of clarity. “Tidjit” is quintessential Tinariwen, with vibrant rhythms and guitar licks rolling in complex motion beneath full choruses, handclaps, and a layer of lute courtesy of Miloudi Mad Chaghli. “Imidiwan Mahitinam” is a little quicker, with Ag Touhami and Eyadou Ag Leche whipping out intense guitar lines. “Iket Adjen” is brilliantly nimble.

Tinariwen’s sound is a tried-and-true one. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic hindered the production process for Amatssou, the music is consistent in all the right ways with Tinariwen’s usual fare thanks to the consummate professionals in the band and on the crew. Spread out across three continents, the Amatssou team has nonetheless created a tight and exciting package of assouf (the term Tinariwen often uses for their music, translating to “nostalgia”). Tinariwen link Nashville and North Africa in ways well suited to a definition of outlaw country that includes their rebellious rock.

RATING 9 / 10