Tuareg nomads and cowboy drifters. Camel trains and mustang horses. The timeless horizon of the endless Sahara and the wild frontier of the Old West – and when the day is done, guitars around the campfire, singing songs of loss and longing and ‘home on the range’.
Several thousand miles of ocean may divide the desert blues of Tinariwen and the authentic country music of rural America but the links are as palpable as they are romantic.
On Amatssou, their ninth studio album, Tinariwen set out to explore these shared sensibilities as banjos, fiddles and pedal steel mix seamlessly with the Tuareg band’s trademark snaking guitar lines and hypnotic grooves.
In the two decades since Tinariwen emerged from their base in the African desert to tour the globe, they have got to know many renowned American country, folk, and rock musicians including Kurt Vile, Cass McCombs, Micah Nelson (son of Willie Nelson), Cat Power, Wilco, Bon Iver and Jack White – and the story of Amatssou begins in 2021 when White invited Tinariwen to record in Nashville at his private recording studio.
White is a long-time fan and lent Tinariwen his engineer Joshua Vance Smith to mix the group’s last album, 2019’s Amadjar. The plan this time was for Tinariwen to fly to America to record with local country musicians and Grammy-winning producer Daniel Lanois, whose production credits range from U2 and Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris.
Founder members Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Touhami Ag Alhassane and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni plus bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, percussionist Said Ag Ayad and guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid were all ready to make the trip until the global pandemic prevented them from travelling. Plans were hastily redrawn instead for Lanois and a handpicked group of American country musicians to travel to Africa and to work with the band in their natural surroundings of the desert.
Tinariwen’s last album was recorded at a camp in Mauritania under the stars. This time the band decided to head for Djanet, an oasis in the desert of southern Algeria located in the Tassili N’Ajjer National Park, a vast sandstone plateau that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and famous for its 10,000 years old prehistoric cave art.
There among jagged rock outcrops and dramatic sandstone vistas, they set up a makeshift studio in a tent, with equipment borrowed from fellow Tuareg band Imarhan’s studio in Tamanrasset, a two day drive away and where the first iteration of Tinarwien formed some 40 years ago.
With Imarhan’s gear came the band’s guitarist Hicham Bouhasse to contribute to the recording but in the second blow dealt by the pandemic, Lanois then contracted Covid and the American contingent was forced to remain at home.
Happily, the integrity of the project remained intact via the wonders of modern technology, with Lanois adding deft touches from his studio in Los Angeles, country musicians Fats Kaplin and Wes Corbett recording their parts in Nashville and Kabyle percussionist Amar Chaoui recording his in Paris.
Lanois’ haunting pedal steel and crystalline production add a soaring ambience to Tinariwen’s trance-like desert blues on “Arajghiyine” and “Jayche Atarak”. Corbett’s banjo lends an empathetic texture to the opening track “Kek Alghalm”, a long time live favourite now recorded for the first time. Kalpin, one of Jack White’s regular sidemen who also played on one track on Tinariwen’s 2014 album Emmaar, variously contributes pedal steel, violin and banjo to six of the ten tracks.
The album’s title Amatssou is Tamashek for ‘Beyond The Fear’ and it fits. Tinariwen have always been characterised by their fearlessness – and as Bob Dylan once said, the power of rock’n’roll is that it makes us “oblivious to the fear” as the music gives us the strength and resilience to confront adversity.
Tuareg culture is as old as that of ancient Greece or Rome, but fusing traditional West African and Arabic styles with blues, country, folk and rock influences, the songs on Amatssou speak to the current and often tough reality of Tuareg life today.
Unsurprisingly there are impassioned references to the Mali’s ongoing political and social turmoil. The rise of the jihadists, who attempted to ban music in a country boasting one of the world’s richest musical cultures, has since been followed by a military coup in 2020 and a further coup d’etat in 2021. French peace keeping troops have been withdrawn and Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group are suspected of involvement in the on-going unrest.
Full of poetic allegory, the lyrics call for unity and freedom. There are songs of struggle and resistance with oblique references to the recent desperate political upheavals in Mali and the increasing power of the Salafists. “Dear brothers all rest, all leisure will always be far from reach unless your homeland is liberated and all the elders can live there in dignity,” Ibrahim Ag Alhabib sings on “Arajghiyine,” while Lanois’s pedal steel and piano lend the song an epic, universal application.
Tinariwen singlehandedly invented a guitar style that has captured the world’s imagination. They call it ishumar or assouf (“nostalgia” in Tamashek). The rest of the planet has come to know it as the Tuareg blues. Its music that is imbued with sorrow and longing but it’s also music for forgetting our cares and for dancing.
Far more than just a rock band, Tinariwen are ambassadors for their people and a way of life in tune with the natural world that is under threat as never before. Their message has never sounded more urgent and compelling than it does on Amatssou.
JOIN OUR MAILING LIST