It’s hard to know how long a record like Tassili lasts. It’s easy to get lost in, feel transported by, and forget when it all began. There’s no studio trickery to speak of, but the droning, repetitive grooves feel endless in the best way. Songs end when they feel like they should; yet how Tinariwen knows when to stop is beyond me.
Formed in Libyan refugee camps in ‘79, the band spent over a decade exiled from its home in Mali. The group didn’t put out its first widely released album until 2001, but it’s been growing a broad international fanbase through ruthless touring ever since. The band literally encompasses generations of Taureg musicians, all nomadic denizens of the Sahara.
Tassili lacks some of the fire of the band’s earliest work, however: While the 2004 album Amassakoul had a Hendrix-like ferocity, subsequent albums have favored more trance-inducing jams. This time around, the band plays all acoustic instruments, but the formula is familiar. Leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib sings for a few bars, his 16 or so bandmates respond, and then long, meandering guitar work ensues. Alhabib’s virtuosic fingers still speak volumes, even as he becomes progressively more restrained.
The unamplified percussion and acoustic vibe brings less rock ‘n’ roll and more earthiness to the table. I have no way to verify the label’s claim that the band’s lyrics are now less political, but stripped-down tracks like “Tameyawt” offer the kind of intimacy that would support a more personal approach.
The album features guest spots from Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, Nels Cline of Wilco, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, which might lead you to believe Tinariwen is reaching for some kind of crossover. The ensemble may be reaching out to other audiences—-and its latest single is perhaps its most accessible yet—-but you’d be hard-pressed to find any artistic compromises. Cline offers an eerie, effects-drenched atmosphere to the opening track, and the Brass Band melds its instruments organically into “Ya Messinagh.” Adebimpe and Malone make their most prominent appearance on “Tenere Taqhim Tossam,” which meshes a TVOTR-style chorus into the Taureg framework, but they also add subtle harmonies and guitar work elsewhere that’s appropriately hard to notice.
Collaborations aside, the album shouldn’t shock longtime fans. The gradual move toward quieter songs has been a long time coming, and while the band may have opened itself up to a few unexpected visitors, the still-beating heart of the desert blues remains the same.