Desert Blues, Recorded On-Site


I just got my copy of Tinariwen’s Tassili today, as a matter of fact. I’ve listened to the CD once, so far, but like it a lot1. If you have a chance, pick up a copy. There is no “Auto-Tune” in use on this desert blues…

In the language of the Tuareg nomads, who for centuries have roamed the most remote reaches of the southern Sahara, “tinariwen” means “deserts.” But ever since the musical group of that name released its first CD in 2001, its members have recorded not on their home turf but in much the same way that American and European bands do: in the artificial environment of a recording studio, in cities like Paris and Bamako, Mali.

With “Tassili,” released on Tuesday, Tinariwen, whose music is a hard-rocking hybrid of Berber, Arab, Western and black African styles, has sought to return to its beginnings. Named for a spectacular area of canyons and sandstone arches near Algeria’s border with Libya, the CD was rehearsed and recorded out of doors there, in tents and around campfires much like those where the group’s founding members, political exiles then living in refugee settlements, first came together to play.

“We wanted to go back to our origins, to the experience of ishumar,” a word in the Tamashek language referring to exile or being adrift, explained Eyadou ag Leche, the band’s bass player, speaking in French during an interview in New York in July. “Those were times when we would sit around a campfire, singing songs and passing around a guitar. Tinariwen was born in that movement, in that atmosphere, so what you hear on ‘Tassili’ is the feeling of ishumar.”

“Theirs is music that at the same time seems very familiar, starting with the guitars and the call and response element in the vocals, but also sounds exotic to the ear,” said the guitarist Nels Cline of Wilco, who supplies an eerily swirling guitar background on “Imidiwan Ma Tennam,” the new CD’s opening track. “You’re listening to stuff that really rocks, but is also very stripped down. There is an air of mystery and longing, and that creates a mood that is palpable, very compelling and attractive for all kinds of people. It’s wonderful music, and not just for guitarists.”
Tinariwen’s music has sometimes been called “desert blues,” and the group’s penchant for writing songs in minor key modes certainly creates a sound that has a blue feeling. But the band’s members prefer to talk about “asuf,” a sentiment from their own culture that describes both a sense of spiritual pain, yearning or nostalgia and the emptiness of the desert itself. That, they acknowledge, creates a certain kinship with the bluesmen of Mississippi and Chicago.

“We didn’t know about these people at first because we were in our own universe,” Mr. ag Leche explained. “But when we first started hearing Hendrix, just to name someone, we felt something immediately. It was almost as if I had known that music from the day I was born. I’m told that a lot of the Africans who went to North America came from West Africa, from our part of the world. So it’s all the same connection. I think that any people who have lived through something that is very hard, feel this asuf, this pain, this longing. That is what will make their music sound similar to each other.”

(click here to continue reading Tinariwen’s ‘Tassili’ – Desert Blues, Recorded On-Site –


  1. as I suspected I would []

A Hot Breath of Saharan Rock

“Imidiwan: Companions” (Tinariwen)

Tinariwen is by far one of my favorite discoveries of recent years. Love their sound, hypnotic, desert blues. Awesome stuff.

Since the late 1970’s, on and off, Tinariwen has been a voice for the Tuaregs, a nomadic minority who attempted a rebellion in 1990 against the government of Mali. The band’s founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, and the musicians he gathered as Tinariwen (which means “deserts”), wrote songs at first as propaganda. Now its lyrics, by the two lead singers who took turns as frontman — Mr. Alhabib and Mr. Alhousseyni — are solemn, filled with longings, memories of “freedom fighters,” homesickness and a determination to hold on to Tuareg identity.

The group had heard rock as well as African and Middle Eastern music. Its instruments are acoustic and electric guitars and electric bass, with a lone hand drum for percussion. They applied Western instruments to the traditions of home: gnarled picking patterns from West African lutes, call-and-response vocals, three-against-two rhythms, a high descant sharing a melody, the modes and inflections of North African and Arabic music. The melodies are as straightforward as folk tunes, but they tug against the harmony in ways different from Western pop or rock, and the vocals stay unpolished — like the voices of footsore travelers, not slick performers.

Tinariwen’s songs extend minimal materials over time. Instrumental passages are more like incantations than solo and backup; guitar lines are bonded to the rhythm, with a twang glinting through now and then. The songs are comparable, inevitably, to a journey through a desert landscape that only appears unchanging to those who don’t perceive its details. A vocal quaver, a guitar trill, some new quick notes in a bass line, a flicker of extra drumming or a burst of ululation from the group’s female singer, Wonou Wallet Sidati, all became events. When some songs picked up speed, in triplet rhythms with handclaps resembling Moroccan gnawa music, they sounded ecstatic.

A few songs revealed that Tinariwen is persistent, not provincial. There were hints of blues and reggae, and in one song, Mr. Alhousseyni placed a repeating guitar line in the foreground: a full-fledged rock guitar hook. But Tinariwen has clearly decided not to change too much for outsiders, and stubbornness only makes its music stronger.

[Click to continue reading Music Review – Tinariwen – Hot Breath of Saharan Rock at Highline Ballroom –]

A wonderfully apt description actually: this kind of music is subtle, rewarding multiple listenings to discover nuances. A casual listen might not reveal how the music shifts in time, this is not Auto-tuned pop music.1

  1. Reminds me of a long-lost friend from Morocco, a drummer, and student at UT, who basically pontificated the same thought to me one evening. I’ll tell you more in person if you are interested. []

Desert Blues

Aman Iman: Water is Life

Pitchfork reviewer Joel Tangari has a nice historical overview of the music from the Sahara, including one of my favorite African based bands, Tinariwen.

The roots of today’s Kel Tamashek guitar revolution lie in varied soil. From a purely musical standpoint, it descends from traditional chant music played on distant relatives of the guitar, which in turn draws from sources north and south. The music of Al Andalus to the north– a family of sounds extending from flamenco in Spain through Arabesque and Berber orchestras in North Africa and Lebanese string music– is one source of input, while the myriad musics of the Sahel, a semi-arid band of land that spans Africa to the south of the Sahara, are also close relatives.

The pentatonic scales echo those heard along the curve of the Niger River, and it’s easy to draw a line through the music of Senegal, Guinea, southern Mali, and other parts of West Africa straight to American blues. This YouTube video isn’t much to look at, but it’s soundtracked by a Tamashek chant recorded in the 1930s that offers a good glimpse of the connection between traditional Kel Tamashek music and the modern, electrified version (I believe the stringed instrument is a tehardent, a three-stringed lute related to the ngoni and ultimately the guitar):

[Check it out Pitchfork Feature: Rebel Blues in the Sahara: A Desert Guitar Primer]

There is a certain ineffable quality to music of the desert, a rough-hewn beauty. Perhaps due to the dual desert heritage of my name (ancient Hebrew, ancient Egypt), perhaps for deeper DNA related reasons, but the music of the Sahara, and nearby, resonates in my soul.

  1. repost from my old blog []

Group Doueh: Guitar Music From The Western Sahara

Guitar Music From The Western Sahara

If you think you’ve heard all the great electric guitar styles in the world, think again. This Saharan sand-blizzard of fine-crushed glass will grind your face to a bloody pulp. Group Doueh play raw and unfiltered Saharawi music from the former colonial Spanish outpost of the Western Sahara. Doueh (pronounced “Doo-way”) is their leader and a master of the electric guitar. He’s been performing since he was a child playing in many groups before finally creating his own in the 1980’s.

Doueh says he’s Influenced by western pop and rock music especially Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. His sound is distorted, loud and unhinged with an impressive display of virtuosity and style only known in this part of the world. His wife Halima and friend Bashiri are the two vocalists in the group. Saharawi songs are from the sung poetry of the Hassania language. The music is based on the same modal structure as Mauritanian music, however, Doueh’s style is a looser appropriation infused with a western guitar scope, one that relies, in his words, as much on Hendrix as it does traditional Sahrawi music. It also adds a playful pop element that rarely filters through in this region. Doueh has turned down countless offers from Morocco and Europe to release his music but he decided to offer us access to his homemade recordings and photo archive for this amazing debut release. This is a CD reissue of the sold-out LP edition and comes with great photos of the musicians and liner notes by Hisham Mayet.

[From Group Doueh: Guitar Music From The Western Sahara CD SF030 Reissue]

Right-o. Face-melting is apt: this music has not been filtered by Auto-Tune that is for damn sure. Hypnotically listenable, full of inventive trills, but not for the faint-of-heart, or those put off by lack of musical fidelity.