A car speeds through the desert, its passenger staring out at the world passing by. The video for Toumast Tincha, the opening track on this sixth album by Tinariwen suggests business as usual for Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and his crew, yet sharp eyes will spot things you wouldn’t expect deep in the Sahara: the flora is too healthy, the road too smooth... are those telegraph wires? Is that a railway line? Have the Tuaregs gone John Ford on us? On their previous albums, Ag Alhabib took listeners deep into the heart of Mali, searching for the sound he heard at home in Tessalit, surrounded by mountains, living above an aquifer, walking every day to his vegetable garden. The hardships the band faced in one of the most surprisingly hospitable places on earth were the bedrock of the groove; an ambience of contrasts, of cheap car stereos and silent nights, was the task he set producers. Then, suddenly, Mali was engulfed in violence.
Deserts don’t all sound the same. Recorded not in the Sahara but Joshua Tree, the 11 tracks here are crafted to reproduce an outsider’s impression of America. With long-time producer Jean-Paul Romann busy, the band turned to Patrick Votan and Vance Powell (the latter best known for working with Jack White), who have opened Tinariwen’s sound up wide where once it traded in claustrophobia.
“Free flowing, but no less focused or political.”
Last year, when rock-savvy Tamikrest released the superb Chatma, it appeared the baton might have been passed to a new generation of Tuareg bluesmen. Now the state of play is less certain. The staccato guitars and one-note solos have precedent, but in places there is spacey, free-flowing playing, too, that makes the results sound less austere. Free flowing, but no less focused or political. On Toumast Tincha, bass-player Eyadou Ag Leche issues a universal manifesto: “The ideals of the people have been sold cheaply... A peace imposed by force is bound to fail and give way to hatred.”
No longer talking to the rocks of his homeland, Ag Alhabib is drawing parallels between distant continents, standing shoulder to shoulder with others on the wildest fringes of Americana – The Grateful Dead, Easy Rider, Sergio Leone, Zabriskie Point – where the dream is survival not prosperity, self-determination rather than social mobility.
Guests such as Nashville fiddler Fats Kaplin enhance a handful of tracks, but this is a cry from a frontier far beyond Music City. It warns of the division conflict brings, of the conflict division brings, it speaks of the dangers of “civilisation”. Tinariwen still speak to the world as outsiders, but now they are telling the rest of us more about ourselves than we knew before.
Watch the video for Toumast Tincha: