13 Apr 2024

Review: Amatssou by Tinariwen

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 13 April 2024

Photo: Bandcamp

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In recent years a genre called desert blues has been growing in prominence. A Tuareg performer called Mdou Moctar is a notable exponent, appearing on American features like NPR’s Tiny Desk, and Live on KEXP.

The genre originates from the Sahara region of Africa, and mixes electric guitars with Middle Eastern and African influences, and is generally sung in Tamasheq. The band who fused these elements first did so in 1979, expanding their collective while receiving military training in Libya at the decree of Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Their name is Tinariwen, and three of their founding members are still touring, and making albums. 

The backstory to this band is far more complex than we have time for in this review, as its founding members were caught up in uprisings and spent time in refugee camps. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib saw his father executed when he was four, and later built his first guitar out of a “plastic water can, a stick and some fishing wire”.

He’s been joined since the group’s inception by Alhassane Ag Touhami and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, the three sharing lead vocal duties across this album. 

Since the group broke outside the Sahara, around 2001, they’ve explored incorporating outside influences into the mix. On Amatssou those come from some unexpected quarters, and are frequently thrilling.

That track features Wes Corbett on banjo, a bluegrass player from Boston. It might seem a stretch on paper, but part of this music’s DNA comes from the blues musicians of the American South. 

Several tracks on Amatssou feature Fats Kaplin, an American multi-instrumentalist. You can hear him add country fiddle to the track ‘Tenere Den’

The past few Tinariwen albums have featured guest players from outside North Africa like Matt Sweeney, Warren Ellis, Kurt Vile, Saul Williams, and more. 

The plan for this one was to record in Nashville, following an invitation from Jack White. The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to that, the band instead recording in a Saharan National park, while being produced remotely by Daniel Lanois. 

He’s produced albums for everyone from Neil Young to U2, and apparently the idea to fuse Tinariwen’s sinewy arrangements with more countrified sounds was his.  

The results are fascinating, and will undoubtedly compel in a live setting, around four decades involving political upheaval channelled into fiery performance.

Tinariwen play Auckland's Powerstation on Weds May 29th, and Wellington's Opera House on Thurs May 30th