Anyone who has been following Sahara-rock-blues bands will be able to guess at the frontman’s background before they’ve even got the transparent plastic wrapper off the album. He’s Tuareg, isn’t he? Yes he is. His name is Moussa ag Keyna. And I’ll bet that he fought against the governments that were trying to displace his nomadic people from their territory in the Sahara, didn’t he? Yes. And he was wounded and recuperated and now he’s decided to pursue music instead of civil war. Ah, like Tinariwen. Yes. Good. I like Tinariwen. Good. So do I.
So did he. The surprise here is that Toumast is second-generation Saharan rock. The tishoumaren style is still so new to the West that we’ve barely been given a chance to grasp the first generation yet. As far as the English-speaking music market is concerned, Tinariwen, the granddaddy of the genre, kickstarted everything with The Radio Tsidas Sessions in 2002. In fact the group had already been in existence for two decades by then, but its base of operations in the refugee camps of northern Mali was not conducive to an extra-African career. Ag Keyna says that he first heard Tinariwen when he was 13, and it was this that eventually inspired him to put together a band himself. He experimented with different lineups before, in this adult incarnation, settling on a core group of two, himself and a cousin named Aminatou Gomar. Gomar is the woman looking over his shoulder on the album cover. If video footage is to be believed then she gets a huge and deliciously unladylike kick out of belting her guitar around onstage. She ululates like a tuneful liquid jackhammer. It’s great to watch.
On the album the group sounds larger than a duet. We hear more than one male voice and more than two guitars, we hear clapping and other percussion, carcabou and darbouka, a steady beat swinging around. The difference between the music of Toumast and that of Tinariwen is one of mood. Tinariwen takes itself seriously, settling its feet solidly on the earth and sending out a dense wall of electricity. Toumast feels freer and looser, younger, less fixed and firm. It’s as if ag Keyna has looked back at the work Tinariwen has done, felt that the sound he wanted to build on had already been established, and, with that support behind him, felt free to experiment and play. At one point his guitar seems to be wandering off on its own, carrying us away with it, when unexpectedly it doubles back on itself and slips into the song again with an insouciance that argues a sense of humour. The group’s idea of a love song, “Tallyatidagh”, is expansive enough to include not only the familiar camel-gait blues-rock guitar and ululating whoop, but also a fluttering soprano saxophone and a backing singer who has the sort of wavering voice you’d expect to hear in a very lo-fi indie band, one that sounds as if the person is addressing a melody just to one side of the one that everybody else is listening to, or as if she’s slightly deaf, or singing in the shower.
At the end of the album they bring in a new sound, an orchestral dip of strings, and then there’s a scream. I’ve never heard anything like it, the background of pattering claps and blues-rock guitar, these crooning, yearning, sweetening strings, and then this male desert-shriek scraping across the top. It’s a daring combination. Ishumar is decorated with ideas that you wouldn’t expect if you were buying this album thinking that Toumast was going to be just another Tinariwen but with less explosive hair. This is one of the wonderful things about all of the bands that are being promoted as part of this desert blues movement: they’re not clones of one another. Everyone has a distinct character. Tinariwen is Tinariwen, the grand old men of the genre, fierce and dirty, while Tartit focuses less on the guitars and more on massed percussive clapping, and Etran Finatawa combines Tuareg music with that of the neighbouring Wodaabe, those slender and elegant cattle-herders. Frontman duties are split between a bounding, energetic Tuareg and a Wodaabe who claps with his fingers held stiffly as if he’s afraid he might break a nail.
Ishumar is the sound of a genre growing up, beginning to find out how far it can go and still stay attached to the core of its inspiration. I warmed to it in a way that I haven’t warmed to either Tinariwen or Tartit. I admire them and enjoy them, but Toumast’s spirit of fun is hard to resist.