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Music Review: Tinariwen – Tassili

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Do you remember back to the days of your high school English literature classes learning about literary devices like foreshadowing and pathetic fallacy? The latter, imbuing events in nature or inanimate objects with human emotions to help create atmosphere and to intensify mood, was the one teachers always trotted out during the study of any of Shakespeare’s plays. Unlike most of the modern writers we would study in high school, he understood the power of natural imagery and how it could evoke reactions at a visceral level. Perhaps that was because in the era when he was writing, nature still had far more of an impact on the day to day lives of people.

Today, unless it’s a storm of some magnitude, like a hurricane or tornado, we can pretty much carry on blithely, ignoring the elements. Oh, rain and snow might inconvenience us slightly on occasion, but for most of us they don’t dictate our food supply or our overall chances of survival.

While you’ll still see the occasional reference to “angry storm clouds” popping up in writing, the use of pathetic fallacy appears to have waned with our continued disassociation with nature. The further we move away from the natural world, the less she becomes part of our frame of reference. For instance, when we refer to a place as being our homeland, we are referring to the space defined by lines drawn on a map and a name representing a social/political entity, not the land itself. You’re far more likely to read an urban landscape described using natural terms, the canyons of Manhattan, or man-made articles being imbued with human emotions, the angry tooting of a car’s horn, than references to natural events in order to create mood. No longer able to identify with nature, we look to what we are familiar with and designate it as a replacement.

This was driven home to me recently while listening to, and reading the translations of the lyrics from the newest release from the Kel Tamashek (more commonly referred to by the name given them by conquering Arabs, “Touareg,” or “rebel”) band Tinariwen. Tassili, being released in North America on Anti Records Tuesday, August 30, 2011, wasn’t recorded in a studio in the midst of some urban centre. Instead it was recorded in the Sahara desert in southern Algeria. The band spent five weeks coming up with material and recording it inside a large tent offering only minimal protection from the elements. For while this is a band who experienced some international success after playing at music festivals all over the world, they have never lost sight of who they are and their reasons for making music.

While the romantic image of band members riding camels with an electric guitar slung over one shoulder and an automatic rifle is appealing, times have changed. True, some of the founding band members participated in the uprisings in Niger and Mali while recording music on cassettes that broadcast the message of the rebellion, one with a message designed to promote and protect the rights of a nomadic people from the policies of repressive governments.

With peace treaties now signed supposedly offering the Kel Tamashek guarantees, their situation remains fragile as years of drought and encroachment on traditional territories have wrecked havoc on their world. Perhaps it’s because of this for this recording the band has relinquished their grips on electric guitars in favour of acoustic and utilized unamplified percussion in order to forge an even stronger connection to both their environment and their traditions.

Now, just as much as during the rebellion if not more, their people need reminders of who they are and why the desert is an important part of their lives. They may no longer be carrying machine guns, but Tinariwen are still actively fighting to ensure the survival of their people. It’s not just the subject matter of the songs communicating to the listeners now, it’s the manner in which it is being presented. This is very much a case of the media being as much a part of the message as the message itself.

Those who have listened to Tinariwen will know of the almost trance like quality of their music, how it seduces and entices you to let your mind sink into an almost dream-like state in an attempt to reproduce some of the sensations created by living in the desert. One can almost imagine the vistas of sand spreading out in an endless tableau before you as you listen. The lyrics, in Tamashek, and sung/chanted primarily by front man Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, wash over the steady throb of the percussion and scratch of the electric guitars, occasionally interrupted by an outburst from one of the guitars. These bursts of sound are like alarms reminding us to not to be hypnotized by the environment as while the sands may appear lifeless and barren they actually team with life and sudden changes.

On Tassili, the band’s new approach not only allows you to go deeper into the atmosphere they have always created, it conveys far more of the emotional and spiritual bond their people have with the desert. The intimacy of the acoustic instruments and the focus required to play and record on location has strengthened the ties their music has with the environment to the extent its influence is an almost palpable presence. You would think that this type of recording would be the least likely for the band to start introducing performers who come from other places into the mix. In fact one would almost expect the inclusion of North American guests on the album to be jarring interruptions that would take away from what they were seeking to create.

However, that’s not the case. I don’t tend to read liner notes prior to listening to a CD as I want to create my own impressions of the music without being influenced by what anyone else has to say about a recording. On my first listening, even though the contributions of outsiders included vocals sung in English on the third track, “Tenere Taqhim Tossam”, by Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV On The Radio and horns by New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band on the fourth track, “Ya Messinagh”, they barely registered. I was so caught up in what the band had created, and the additions were so carefully worked into the mix, the contributions of the other musicians were merely another part of the whole experience Tinariwen were creating. Even on listening a second and third time, knowing there were additional musicians involved and listening for them, it didn’t make any difference.

It would be easy for a band in Tinariwen’s position, gaining international acclaim and being lionized by pop stars like Robert Plant and Carlos Santana, to drift away from who they are and lose their focus. However, instead of succumbing to any potential temptations to make their music more accessible to wider audiences they have moved in the opposite direction to return even closer to their roots. It’s as if they have decided that after introducing us to their world, they are now prepared to take us another step deeper into it. On the other hand one always has to remember the circumstances under which they began playing music in the first place. They may have put down the rifles and the fighting might be over, for now, but the war is far from done.

As the world encroaches further and further into their traditional territories and more and more of the Kel Tamashek are being forced to leave the desert to live in cities, they are being disconnected from the life and traditions which gave them direction as a people. Tinariwen, and other Kel Tamashek bands and musicians are continuing to do their best to ensure the survival of their people and their culture through their music. They know they can’t keep the rest of the world at bay, hence the inclusion of those sympathetic to their music and cause on the album.

But with this disc, they are telling their audience, both Kel Tamashek and the rest of the world, we can still be who we once were no matter what the rest of the world throws at us. This beautiful and haunting recording is not a plea for help, rather it is a statement from a proud and dignified people proclaiming their right to live as they want to and celebrating who they are and the land they love.

(Band photo by Marie Planeille)

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.