Of all the Tishoumaren artists to take the world by storm, few have been as pivotal as the storied group Tinariwen. Often upheld as trailblazers of the Kel Tamasheq desert blues movement, Tinariwen is known for stinging electric guitar lines and weathered vocals, a combination that often puts them front and center as an apparent soundtrack to the modern Sahara. Indeed, they have earned their stellar reputation; the group’s collective musical skills are genuinely awe-inspiring, their songs passionate tributes to their homes and communities.
Before breaking into the global market with the support of international collaborations, though, Tinariwen was making music for more local audiences. With the Wedge reissue of the 1992 album Kel Tinariwen, the world can finally hear the much-lauded ensemble at its very start. Previously released on cassette and available only in Mali, Kel Tinariwen offers a very different sense of style than the rugged sounds for which Tinariwen are so well known.
Though the famous guitars are still present, they are generally less fundamental than a whole host of synthesizers that quickly rise to the forefront as key to the Kel Tinariwen palette. Tinny drum machines undergird bright keyboard swirls, cutting through lyrical pathos with quickly moving parts. In other words, it’s electropop, unmistakably marked by neon-adjacent shades of the early 1990s and a clear fit within other North African pop aesthetics, a stark reminder of what a difference a decade makes, especially when it also entails a shift in the listening audience.
The album opens with “À l’Histoire”, which opens with synths radiant over a cool bassline. Alongside the familiar voice of Tinariwen mainstay Alhassane Ag Touhami, a crucial figure in the Tinariwen story makes her debut: Keltoum Sennhauser, a multihyphenate producer serving as the album’s executive producer. Early on, Sennhauser recognized the potential for groups like Tinariwen to bring attention to the lifeways and lore of Kel Tamasheq communities fighting for political recognition and autonomy. With Kel Tinariwen, she crafts a work meant to reach younger generations. It’s easy to draw comparisons with revolutionary predecessors and contemporaries from the Sahel outward: the punk-tinged raï of artists like Rachid Taha, the early electronic experiments of Francis Bebey, the art rock of the Talking Heads and Zazou Bikaye.
As Kel Tinariwen unfolds, though, it’s clear that this is indeed Tinariwen through and through, no matter how the scenery has changed. The sunny keyboard ostinati of tracks like “Matadjem Yinmexan” and “Arghane Manine” sound dancefloor-ready, but the group’s melismatic vocals are no less impassioned, their winding guitars just as enchanting as on any later work. The melancholy reverb on “Adounia Tarha” foreshadow empty spaces to come. Choruses and rolling melodic waves rock “Amoud Falas Aljalat” with the same uninhibited dexterity that remains their standard to this day.
Listening to Kel Tinariwen 30 years after its release feels a little surreal. At first, it seems diametrically opposed to the Tinariwen that has made such an impact on many of today’s global music scenes. The outward textures here are not raw rock but processed pop, more maximalist than anything the band has put forth since. Still, the bones are the same; this is as sincere a face of the group as on any of their international commercial releases, no matter how surprising its sounds. Tinariwen, it turns out, fares well in a number of different aesthetic frameworks, and Kel Tinariwen serves as a testament to their artistic strength.