ALBUM REVIEW/Dominic Valvona

Tinariwen ‘Amatssou’
19th May 2023

It shouldn’t really come as any surprise to find those Tuareg doyens Tinariwen embracing the country blues signature of Nashville; such is the two musical spheres connection and roots. After all, the late Malian legend Ali Frake Touré teamed up decades ago with Paris, Texas scoring American icon Ry Cooder for the Talking Timbuktu album – a Grammy Award winner no less.

Although still hotly debated, the blues is said to have taken shape, the seed laid in Mali and its disputed borderlands, deserts, centuries if not a millennia ago. The slave trade saw it carried to the European-colonized Americas; its purest, cultural, spiritual form proving, though subjugated, a fecund for a myriad of musical styles that grew in and around the blues in the Deep South, including agreeably everything from country to bluegrass and Americana.

With that in mind, but also with nothing less than a love and respect for the two-decade incarnation of this much older Tuareg nomadic band, Jack White was moved to invite Tinariwen over to record at his private recording studio in Nashville. White had previously lent out his engineer Joshua Vance Smith to mix the group’s last album, released in 2019, Amadjar. Oft “sideman” Fats Kaplin, who is one of the few select Nashville-imbued players to collaborate on this latest project, had also played on their 2014 album, Emmaar.

Unfortunately, due to a series of unfortunate setbacks, this American soil recording wasn’t to be. With the renowned Daniel Lanois and a circle of country musicians now attached to this proposal, the COVID pandemic grounded progress, with Tinariwen’s lineup of founders Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Touhami Ag Alhassane and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyn and bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, percussionist Said Ag Ayad and guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid all prevented from flying. Lanois and company decided to travel to them instead, only the famed producer was struck down with the virus, and so forced to cancel plans.

Thrown into jeopardy, technology would prove the savior, as both partners on this album now recorded their parts separately, thousands of miles apart. Tinariwen’s inspired location was the Djanet “oasis”, within the borders of Algeria’s southern desert and the Tassili N’Ajjer National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage site, famously home to prehistoric cave art. Whilst both Kaplin and fellow country muso Wes Corbett recorded their contributions in Nashville, with further percussion added by Amar Chaoui in a Paris studio: a tri-continental production you could say. Not that you’d ever know it, as the transition, process runs together seamlessly.

In their African surroundings, playing together in a makeshift tent with borrowed equipment from their Tuareg musical peers Imarhan (the band’s guitarist Hicham Bouhasse can be heard contributing and expanding the ensemble even further), Tinariwen entwine their “Assouf” (“nostalgia”) signature of pick-up picked, turned-over, constantly moving guitar hypnotism and camel-motion Bedouin rhythms, and desert chorus voices with the clip-clop, wagon-hitched, pedal-steel slide and twirled banjo sounds of the American prairie, cowshed, barn dance and Western trail.

The bluesy ache and pine of America finds solace in the tumult ache and longing of the Tuareg plight; many forced to scatter across the African continent and overseas as Mali plunges into further chaos. In the long-running fight for an autonomous state (the Azawad) in the North-Eastern reaches of Mali, the Tuareg people have suffered at the hands of the central government; had their cause hijacked by zealous Islamist insurgents (forced out for the most part when former colonists France were invited to stem their bloody progress); seen further civil unrest with a military coup in 2020 and subsequent coup d’état; and endured a catalogue of droughts and economic desperation. As a consequence of the Jihadist hardliners gains during this decade plus turmoil, some outlier regions of the Tuareg were under strict Islamist codes, including the banning of guitars and their music. This forced some groups to seek sanctuary over the borders, with some even moving on to Europe and further afield.

That struggle, travail is beautifully conveyed in the lyricism and the musical panoramic-gazed desert emotions of longing. And so, two desert settings in harmony merge; the unmistakable Tuareg ease and spindled play of guitars blending with subtle essences of bluegrass, Americana and Nashville country blues; disarming in delivery that plaintive song.

A Sahel version of The Band; a fiddled playing barn dance in Timbuktu; and Cooder looking out across a shamanistic vision of out-of-body, otherworldly Americana, the dual Western horizons, when coming together like this, offer up bendy mirages, spins, softened stomps, elliptical bobbing motion sways and scuzzy dirt music. Acoustic and electrified, with spells of the Deltas, the Grand Ole Opry, Appalachians and Missouri breaks throughout, the Tuareg sound finds an harmonious distant relative Stateside.

Amatssou is a captivating, hypnotic joy, the setbacks doing nothing to affect or dent the original concept of a combined, congruous union.

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.


The Monolith Cocktail’s Monthly Playlist Of Choice Music
Picked By Dominic Valvona, Matt Oliver, Brian ‘Bordello’, Gillian Stone, Graham Domain

Three and a half hours of choice music from March, the Monolith Cocktail Revue features tunes from our reviews and columns, plus the tracks we didn’t get room to feature. This month’s selection is courtesy of Dominic Valvona, Matt Oliver, Brian ‘Bordello’ She, Graham Domain and Gillian Stone.

____TRACK LIST____

Snapped Ankles ‘Planet You’
Sparkz ‘Overlord’
Spectacular Diagnostics ‘Political Monsters’
Anemic Cinema ‘Oneirophrenia’
ASSASSUN ‘Unfold On My Chest’
Man/Woman/Chainsaw ‘Back/Burden’
Salem Trials ‘Calculating R’
Ruxpin & Stafraenn Hakon ‘Unmapped Landscapes’
DJ Black Low ‘Thando’
Tinariwen w/ Fats Kaplin ‘Tenere Den’
Dur-Dur Band International ‘Wan Ka Helaa’
Adrian Younge/Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Lonnie Liston Smith ‘A New Spring’
Juppe ‘Fade’
Ramson Badbonez ‘Stir Fried (Remix)’
The Waeve ‘Kill Me Again’
Tilo Weber ‘Nacre Nacre’
Areia ‘The Deaf Man Three’
Sultan Stevenson ‘Summer Was Our Holy Place’
Chairman Maf ‘Deep Water’
Dub Sonata/BlackLiq ‘The B-Side’
Ali Farka Toure (Ft. Oumou Sangare) ‘Bandolobourou’
Philip Selway ‘Strange Dance’
Benedict Benjamin ‘White Noise’
Schizo Fun Addict ‘Over The Hill And Far Away’
Nivis ‘Rain On A Funeral March’
Saba Alizadeh ‘Nafir’
Frederic D. Oberland ‘Quatre Epaves d’Acier’
Qrauer ‘Foq (ANGRiDAD RMX)’
Carmen Jaci ‘I See’
Healing Force Project ‘Adrift In The Stratosphere’
Murs ‘Spaghetti At The Ghetty’
Efeks Ft. Breezy Lee & Steady ‘Grateful’
Rico James ‘All Candles’
Varnish La Piscine ‘NUBIAN FARLOW’
ILLAMAN Ft. Pitch 92 ‘Sometimes Relax’
AJ Suede/ Televangel ‘Terrible’
ILLAMAN Ft. Pitch 92 ‘Absolutely Tidy’
Che Noir/ Big Ghost Ltd. ‘Quiet Movers’
Niclas Tamas ‘Cosmology Mammal’
Tomo-Nakaguchi ‘The Starry Night’
Jman/The Argonautz ‘Dying Breed’
Farmabeats/Baileys Brown ‘They Live We Sleep (Pricks From The Thorn)’
Joel Harrison & Anthony Pirog ‘Critical Conversation’
Lukas Traxel ‘The Call’
Lucy Kruger & The Lost Boys ‘Heaving’
Smashing Red ‘Hot Sun’
Goodbye Karelle ‘Moonroad’
Halo Maud ‘Catch The Wave’
Night Noise Team ‘Little Shocks’
Ghosts On TV ‘Life In Plastic’
Salem Trials ‘Super Spreader’
$T33D$_uv-LUV ‘J.O.1.’

Compiled: Dominic Valvona/Matt Oliver
Art: Gianluigi Marsibilio

From an abundance of sources, via a myriad of social media platforms and messaging services, even accosted when buying a coffee from a barristo-musician, the Quarterly Revue is expanding constantly to accommodate a reasonable spread that best represents the Monolith Cocktail’s raison d’etre.

As you will hear for yourselves, new releases and the best of reissues plucked from the team – me, Dominic ValvonaMatt Oliver, Brian ‘Bordello’ Shea, Andrew C. Kidd and Gianluigi Marsibilio (who also put together the playlist artwork) – rub shoulders in the most eclectic of playlists, with tracks as geographically different to each other as Belem and Palermo.

Digest and discover as you will, but we compile each playlist to run in order so it feels like the best uninterrupted radio show or most surprising of DJ sets.

Words: Ayfer Simms

Tinariwen live Zourlo, Istanbul 2017

We sit, and wait. The lights are on, the stage is empty, there’s a glow but we are unsure where it comes from. The room, a sort of Amphitheatre dressed in red velvety fabric has the allure of a drama play setting, it is dressed for it, whereas it has witnessed some grandiose, yet intimate moments I shan’t say.

The public is young and energetic; this public can appreciate what is to come. The public in Turkey is not eclectic. You can cut it with a sharp knife, clean carving; you will most definitely not see any lines get blurry in the cultural arena. This crowd is educated, have a bit of money, and is relentless, perhaps in the light of the newish developments that have been occurring: the rise of power all trapped in one single man. Read between the lines, that is how much we can give without watching over our shoulder these days.


This public is thirsty for this music, rather than an easy escape, it is a sort of shamanistic experience that they/we call for. As if the need for leaving our body would somehow liberate us for a moment, of the unspoken troubled iron fist that tightens its grip on this particular youth- and everyone else if they care to notice- in this modern area of Istanbul, a bastion in the fight against bigotry and subjection. We wonder then how being seated will work for us, nailed to our chair while our chests are already glowing in the midst of the room, as one great energy swirling around, ready to combust. Our bodies will enter a weirdly autistic convulsion, and our legs locked and handcuffed will soon frantically shake, like stoners from the 60s, our chains eager to break free will chime like those of the slaves on a field. We smile. We lose our breath when they finally appear on stage, one by one with a cool sobriety.


They take us higher than we’d imagine, with their ever so cool blues and mystical presence. There they are, welcomed by the crowd as if they carried under their shiny djellabas the secrets of freedom. Trance, entrance, and slowly the rhythms pick up and, some break free in the crowd and out of the cuckoo nest gather in the empty spaces between seats and vales, march in tremor, taken by seizures of pleasure, and surf the notes to outburst in front of the blue lights, summed by the members of the band. Tinariwen didn’t bring the desert to Istanbul, as enticing and magical that may be, they brought an air of rebellious fever, quenching the thirst for freedom, for all the while that they played we felt hope, we lost fear, and we felt igniting in our core, the courage to fight back. We left the venue filled with a reinforced desire to defeat our own local demons, if not with our fists, at least with our art. And as long as these bands don’t abandon us, we will be alright.

Ayfer Simms is a Franco-Turkish author, Agatha Christie obsessive, martial arts practitioner and contributor to the Monolith Cocktail who lives in the ancestral family home of Üsküdar-old Scrutari in Istanbul, Turkey with her husband and daughter. Ayfer currently works for the Institute Francais in Istanbul; a role that has recently involved her organising musical soirees and helping to bring Mali’s desert blues doyans Tinariwen to Turkey. Ayfer is just putting the finishing touches to her debut novel. 

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