Nothing to fear but fear itself
With producer Daniel Lanois in tow, the Tuaregs venture into the beyond on their ninth album, recorded in LA, Paris and Algeria. By David Hutcheon. Illustration by Joe Wilson.
Tinariwen ★★★★ Amatssou WEDGE. CD/DL/LP
PUTTING ASIDE Bono’s much-derided dancing at the Festival in the Desert – available on YouTube (and, for what it’s worth, more power to him for losing himself in the music) – there are few obvious connections between U2 and Tinariwen. Yet, while they don’t sound like brothers in arms, The Unforgettable
Fire, recorded more than 15 years before the Tuaregs made any international impact, shares its ambience with the pioneers of the Saharan blues, their guitars’ sense of wide, open space, their hope for sanctuary beyond the horizon and their ability to convey the experience of struggle beneath an endless, unforgiving sky.
Dig deeper and a more tangible link eventually reveals itself. In 2009, MOJO witnessed the recording of
Imidiwan in the hills around Tessalit, in the north-east of Mali, where Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the band’s de facto leader, lives. This was, in his words, “where the guitar makes the sounds I want”. As security in the Sahara became more of an issue, it became harder to find the sound they were looking for without risking their lives. The extremists who seized control of that part of the desert outlawed music, with transgressors facing possible death, and Intidao, one of the members of the extended family that Tinariwen had become, was among those taken hostage by the Islamist group Ansar Dine.
Though he was released, it was clear being part of a collective whose mythos included taking up arms against the Malian government was no guarantee of well-being. If business had to be attended to, it was going to have to be done elsewhere. Given, however, the musicians’ unease in cities, where they feel constricted by walls and regulations, they couldn’t just book any old Abbey Road.
Emmaar (2014) and Elwan (2017) were recorded in – where else? – Joshua Tree, where the rocky landscapes of the Mojave Desert meet the dunes of the Colorado Desert. Out of the box, then, the most surprising thing about Tinariwen’s ninth studio LP is that it has taken this long for Daniel Lanois, an integral part of U2’s ascendancy, to be called on to occupy the producer’s chair.
Though the band have inched closer to home since – Mauritania and Western Sahara hosted the sessions for their most recent LP,
Amadjar (let’s not count last year’s Kel Tinariwen, a substandard dig into prehistory that didn’t feature Ibrahim) – circumstances meant a return to Tessalit was out of the question (see Back
Story). No matter. The LP title, a Tamashek word that translates as “beyond the fear”, introduces listeners to a terroir the six stalwarts of the band have called their own for decades. So began the now-familiar process of piecing together tracks across the ether: in Nashville, pedal-steel and fiddle player Fats Kaplin and banjo maestro Wes Corbett; percussionist Amar Chaoui in Paris; Lanois in LA; Tinariwen in a tent in southern Algeria, using equipment belonging to Imarhan, one of the Tuareg groups that came to prominence in their wake and who now own a studio in Tamanrasset. The geology may have reminded them of home, perhaps even conjured up an approximation of that sound beloved of Ibrahim, recorded under the stars as a breeze blows through the strings; the 12,000-year-old cave paintings nearby underlining the fact that art can always be created in the most unlikely of locations.
And, as always with Tinariwen, the location inhabits the music. Traditionally, Tinariwen’s guitarists and singers have represented the storytelling poet-troubadour, the percussionists are their mode of transport; with the fiddle and pedal steel – Kaplin also appeared on Emmaar – we have the desert that surrounds them. Though both Kek Alghalm and Anemouhagh are elevated by flurries of bluegrass banjo, Kaplin creates platforms upon which the central players then weave their tales. On Arajghiyine, his notes stretch off into infinity; his solo on the outro of Tenere Den is a wonder and the perfect riposte to anyone who wishes Tinariwen could get back to the unsophisticated swing of their earlier work. Arajghiyine is followed by Imzad, played on a desert fiddle, underlining the commitment to the Tinariwen sound straight after allowing it to be stretched in unconventional directions.
Now, such praise may have seasoned Lanois watchers recoiling at the thought of him going too far (painting over-grandiose, multi-layered big pictures, viz Robbie Robertson’s eponymous 1987 album), but there’s only one moment when the production distracts from the players, a brief yet clunky guitar overdub on Arajghiyine. Listeners who love a wide soundstage, however, with well-separated guitars coming at you from all angles, will be in heaven. Thankfully, the guests shun the spotlight, leaving Ibrahim, Alhassane Ag Touhami and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni to concentrate on that elusive sound, the guitars cleaner and crisper than those that introduced Tinariwen to the world 20 years ago. Lanois brings more surprises than you’d expect to tunes by a group with a 30-year recording histor y, yet never smothers the players and wisely leaves them to be themselves.
As a result, Tinariwen kick harder than they have for a while. Ibrahim, in particular, seems more focused than on recent releases – ‘energised’ would be the wrong word for a man who has turned sounding worn down by the tribulations of life into an inspiring art form. Yet the key track may be the one that closes the album, on which the regular Tinariwen team play little part. Tinde (Outro) is the traditional sound of a party, of old friends gathering at an oasis to celebrate a reunion, the women playing their drums and singing while the men dance. It’s a glimpse of real life. The day is over, camels can be tethered, tales can be told, food can be cooked over open flames. An unforgettable fire still burns in the Sahara.
“Listeners who love a wide soundstage, with guitars coming from all angles, will be in heaven.”