A lot of bands classify themselves or are designated as some permutation of Afrobeat, regardless of how much they actually borrow from genuine African genres. In the face of questionable distillations of African music, it’s no surprise that one of the first genuine emissaries of sub-Saharan “desert blues”, Tinariwen, returned to their roots on their fifth album, Tassili. The band eschewed studios to record in the Algerian boonies, hauling instruments and hundreds of pounds of equipment with them. “Tinariwen” means desert, after all, and Tassili arcs with the same elegance as the sandstone formations after which it is named. The result is an intimate, crystalline collection of almost entirely acoustic songs that hews as closely to American folk as it does Algerian protest songs.
This Americana influence is obvious from Nels Cline’s opening hair-raising guitar licks on “Imidiwan Ma Tennam”. Though his background murmur hums with recognizable Wilco density and tension, it ebbs and flows naturally with Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s leading guitar and all the band members’ vocals. Other collaborators Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV On the Radio also easily integrate their falsettos into “Walla Illa” and “Tenere Taqqim Tossam”. And it’s almost impossible to notice the language difference, especially since Malone and Adebimpe inflect rolled “r”’s when they say “Tenere”.
But loss and minor chords don’t structure all of Tassili: Tinariwen’s asceticism can be hopeful, too. Album closer “Iswegh Attay”, for example, builds from Nick Drake-ian opening guitars to choral arrangements like slave field songs from the American Songbook. The low, insistent horns on “Ya Messinagh”, courtesy of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, give the song and vocalists purpose. And “Imidiwan Win Sahara” sounds practically pastoral with handclaps, monk-like wordless humming, and sparsely sunny melodies. Ultimately, the warm “Wish You Were Here” 12-string verses and seamless, tribal harmonies on “Tamiditin Tan Ufrawan” encapsulate Tinariwen’s compelling fusion of African and American rock and roll.
Essential Tracks: “Imidiwan Ma Tennam”, “Tenere Taqqim Tossam”