Album Review: Dominic Valvona



Kel Assouf ‘Black Tenere’
(Glitterbeat Records) 15th February 2019



Mirroring the borderless Nomadic freewheeling of the Berber ancestral Tuareg people, a loosely atavistic-connected confederacy (to put it into any kind of meaningful context) of diverse tribes that have traditionally roamed Sub-Saharan Africa since time immemorial, Kel Assouf channels a wealth of musical influences both historically and geographically into an electrified reworking of (as vague and over-used a term as it is) desert rock.

Headed by charismatic Gibson Flying V slinger front man Anana Ag Haroun, who’s own lineage takes in both the landlocked behemoth Niger and bordering Nigeria, the highly propulsive, cyclonic spiraling trio propel that heritage into the 21st century; thanks in many ways to the futuristic cosmic electronic and bass frequency production of the band’s rising innovative keyboardist/producer Sofyann Ben Youssef – a name that should be familiar to regular readers as the dynamic force behind the multimedia musical Pan-Maghreb Ammar 808 project (one of our albums of 2018) and member of the electric jolted Algerian borderlands Bargou 08.

Informed, if not driven, lyrically by Haroun’s Tuareg roots, the Black Tenere album wastes no time in drawing the listener’s attention to the violent struggles endured by the Bedouin in their fight for autonomy and survival. A diverse society of various people, grouped together in an age that demands definition and demarcation, even the term ‘Tuareg’ is highly contested: arguably brought into the lexicon through the language of European Colonialism, though etymology traces the term back further to multiple sources. Haroun would prefer we used the original ‘Kel Tamashek’. The elliptic soft lunging rhythmic desert canter opening ‘Fransa’ poetically, in earthy earnestness, encapsulates these struggles and travails:

 

“The war during the French colonization was won
by the swords, shields and spears of our ancestors.
How do you want potential allies to provide you with modern cannons and
missiles?
Do you see your sisters every day climbing the border mountains (Tassili),
 clandestinely, exhausted, on their knees with bruised feet.”

 

Much is made of the past and ancestral rights, but the plight of the Kel Tamashek is ongoing. For now an uneasy truce exists between the various city-state governments and their rural and desert populations, especially in Mali, the Kel Tamashek uprisings that first kick-started a decades long fight for an autonomous state, known as the Azawad, in the north eastern desert regions of the Mali, began in the late 1960s; continuing throughout until more recent times when they made worldwide headlines as their struggle was hijacked spectacularly by Islamist insurgents – worryingly gaining ground as a Trojan Horse within their nomadic allies fight for independence; the destructive Islamist fascists horrified many when they took the ancient seat of West African learning and trade, Timbuktu, and preceded to demolish it like barbarians. Former Colonial masters France were forced to intervene, finally halting the insurgents progress before forcing all groups involved back to where they started, and many across the border. Far from ideal, the Islamist usurpers dissipated to a degree but then switched to sporadic acts of terrorism, carrying out smaller militia attacks in Mali’s capital.

In the bordering Niger, the Kel Tamashek have remained more obscure as they fight to maintain their lands and way of life, which is being eroded by climate-change and over-desertification (when relatively dry land becomes increasingly arid, losing bodies of water, vegetation and the wildlife with it).





Sonically given a dynamic but equally yearning, even romantic (especially on the gospel organ and mulling guitar accompanied ethereal-scenic paean to a virtual oasis, ‘Taddout’), boost to the nomadic heritage, they have a certain synthesized edge and twist missing from fellow desert rock groups such as Tinariwen (a major influence on Kel Assouf) and Tamikrest. Those familiar circling trance-y guitar riffs and camel-ride motions of the desert rock genre remain, yet the influence of heavy-hitters such as Hendrix, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin blend with acid psychedelic rock and more languid stoner rock, ‘astral ambience’ (their words not mine) and even club beats, take it in new directions. Add to this bubbling stew Haroun’s absorption of the cross-pollinating international music of his hometown – for the last eleven years – of Brussels, and the inclusion of local Belgium jazz drummer Oliver Penu adding off-kilter swerve, bounce, shimmery cymbal crescendos and limber, and you have a truly exciting global sound that evokes tribal medicine man dances, ambient traverses, rockier elements of Funkadelic, the Muscle Shoals studio, Black Merde, Terakaft and labelmates Dirtmusic: Sonorous beats and various desert settings from Africa, Mid Western America and the Australian Outback are evoked at any one time in this blazing mix.

A stunning rock odyssey that draws its multiple sources together in both defiance and in the spirit of communication – the Kel Tamashek plight, as guardian-custodians of the desert, translated via the poetic heartfelt earthy soulful lyrics of Haroun – Black Tenere stretches the roots of nomadic rock and blues to reflect ever-expanding musical horizons as the global community grows ever-smaller and music becomes more fluid and spreads with ease. Kel Assouf are on another plane entirely; propelling rock music into the future.





Words: Dominic Valvona

 

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