Formed in 1979 in Libyan refugee camps, where they spent 15 years away from their native Mali, Tinariwen can be said to have been born out of war and chaos. Despite this long absence from their homeland, they are fiercely loyal to their heritage. This commitment and love of the desert landscape of north Mali shines through on Tassili, named after region where, in tents and around campfires, they recorded this 12-song piece.
Tassili is in all parts meandering, sorrowful and proud, and it works slowly to create an atmosphere around you. Wind and rain can be heard in the background, and when the voices begin, floating over the carefully strummed guitars, the sound is so refreshing compared to those usual of a studio session, you can almost see the men seated in a circle, singing to one another and to their home. With this open and honest sound, they create songs about desert pride, bad luck, jealousy, the longing for homeland, and hope for God’s help. One of the best things here is the under-emphasized percussion, merely shaking or plinking in time, not thumping out a big beat that overpowers the melodies. There are also some interesting guests appearances as well, most notably by Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, who sing their famous falsetto in the English chorus that nicely matches Ibrahim’s deep Tuareg in “Tenere Taqqim Tossam.”
Another key track is “Aden Osamnat,” highly syncopated and fast compared to the smooth tones of most other tracks. The rising and fall intonations make it almost comparable to standard Arabic folk songs, but soon the words stop and slide guitars take the track to the American west for a few beautiful moments. The genius of most of Tassili is the structure: they start simply and know exactly when to add the backing chorus or the right flourish of sound. Touches of western rock show up just enough to add an internationalism but never seem obtrusive. On the opener for example, “Imidiwan Ma Tennam” (My friends what do you say?) the traditional instruments and drums are slowly washed in a building electric guitar that almost breaks into a psych-style solo but fades off gracefully instead. Often smoldering, contemplative strings and Ibrahim’s rough, sad voice stand alone, calling out to the listening, but also maintaining a reserved air. These are his stories, his complaints and words of wisdom and the listener can take them or not. Not a thing is forced and the result is both sublime and stirring beyond compare; every note aches just to be heard, to echo around and be overtaken by the next.
– Will Yates