Eleven years and four studio albums into their career, Tamikrest is going home. Their latest album for Glitterbeat was recorded in Bamako, Mali, but is named for where the group formed, the northeastern town of Kidal.
While Tuareg desert blues songs are often lengthy, open-feeling jams, the parameters of the genre are pretty rigid, particularly as Tamikrest plays them: a heavy backbeat on hand percussion and a minor pentatonic scale on the guitar and for the vocal line. But even if the sidelines are clearly marked, on the playing field there’s room for plenty of variation. It’s not only pliable, it’s a really winning formula as the growing popularity of Tinariwen—the genre’s pioneer and reigning giant—and Bombino—the fleet-fingered maverick—attest.
Recording in summer 2016, Tamikrest’s sound has continued to evolve. By the first track, long-time Tamikrest followers will hear that the lead singer and main songwriter, Ousmane ag Mossa, has found another gear for his voice, a deeper register. On the nigh-major key track “Erres Hin Atouan,” he sounds positively relaxed. Musically, the freewheeling electric guitar solos still have their place, but the dual acoustic guitars on “Tanakra” ride Western-style fingerpicking into a Pink Floyd-esque cavern of reverb.
Producer Mark Mulholland, who has worked with the Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra, and David Odlum, who has worked with Tinariwen and mixed this album, found space in the mix for everything, from the upbeat build of “War Toyed” to the pastoral acoustic jam of the album-closer “Adad Osan Itibat.”
All Tuareg desert blues is political, a proclamation of identity for a group that’s split among five countries, without one to call its own. In 2012, the Tuaregs rose up and declared the independent state of Azawad, which included the town of Kidal. After less than a year, local al-Qaeda forces swept in from the north and imposed a harsh, foreign creed of Islam on the population. In January 2013, French and Malian military forces brought the town back under the Malian government.
Ag Mossa and Tamikrest have never been shy about favoring Tuareg independence, even as they recognize that many now confuse the movement with the terrorists who derailed Azawad. Kidal is a declaration of identity and a cry for freedom, a freedom that’s being encroached upon by both governments they feel don’t represent them, and avaricious corporate interests.
“Kidal talks about dignity,” Ag Mossa says. “We consider the desert as an area of freedom to live in. But many people consider it as just a market to sell to multinational companies, and for me, that is a major threat to the survival of our nomadic people.”