ALBUM REVIEW/Dominic Valvona

Toumastine ‘Assouf’
19th November 2021

Is it any wonder that a band of such young Tuareg friends from the unstable Niger yearn for nostalgia; for a life free of ethnic, territorial and economical conflict, as the region remains locked-in to a ferocious war with Islamist terrorist groups. No, it’s not.

Just as last year’s elections in Niger proved democratic (the first such free elections since independence in 1960), a military coup in the capital last March almost put paid to such ideals of a smooth transition of power. Thankfully the government’s security forces thwarted this attempt to seize power from the elected Mohamed Bazoum. Still, there remains a triple threat to that seat, what with the crippling effects of Covid, the continues fighting between a coalition of African and NATO forces against ISIS/Al-Qaeda affiliated militants in the area, and the ill-winds of climate change all to contend with.

Niger’s been overshadowed in the last few years – and the present – by the insurgency in Mali and the unfolding events in Ethiopia and the Sudan. As it stands the country is in discussions with their regional partners on the best course of action in stopping various incursions, raids and terrorist acts across a belt-like area that crisscrosses the borders of Mauritania, Chad, Bakino Faso, Mali and of course, Niger. Government forces have taken part alongside France and others in Mali, which has brought reprisals from factions trying to cause chaos in sub-Saharan Africa. These same groups have forced many young Nigerians to fight for their cause, with Niger’s western Tillabéri region almost a no-go zone. If you read the Home Office guidance, Niger is said to be extremely dangerous, with kidnappings almost a certainty.

It’s within this picture that Toumastine have managed to record a bright, powerful Tuareg rock and blues (with touches of reggae) album. Culturally, ancestrally part of the loosely-connected confederacy of diverse tribes that have always roamed and made home the Sub-Saharan region known as the Sahel, the Tuareg (a term that’s, depending on who you speak to, wrapped up in colonialism; Niger artists like Kel Assouf preferring the “Kel Tamashek” name) have played a major part in the Mali conflict; their age-old fight for an autonomous region within Mali’s borders (the Azawad) gained ground five years ago, before being hijacked by militant Islamist groups. Here the group use the dual Tuareg word “Assouf” as the title for this second album. Meaning both  “nostalgia” and “wilderness”, Assouf lends itself to a brilliantly produced and warm collection of live-feel camaraderie.    

Despite scant resources and backing inside Niger (at one point setting up a microbusiness selling cookies to get this recording off the ground), they built their own studio set up; learning how to use recording equipment from Youtube tutorials. If anything, with such a diy approach, they’ve made music that’s less forced, devoid of artifice, uncloyed by sentiment and out of the hands of grubby record executives. It sounds bloody great! The recording is as near perfect as you can get (actually lot cleaner and better than most big productions I’ve heard this year), and for once I can actually hear the bass guitar, which nimbly probes or evokes Robbie Shakespeare’s languid like throbbing grooves across the album’s mirage melting atmospheres.

Assouf opens with a splash and rattle of drums and an almost country-rock like feel, and a real spring, bounce. ‘Tedoun Etran’ tells a story like all the other songs, a sort of melodious twirl of carefree energy and call of brotherly comradeship. It reminded me in places of Terakraft and Anansy Cissé; Tuareg yet not like most of the desert rock sound that’s traditionally associated with such groups. For sure there’s that signature desert blues twilight guitar twang, but if anything the overall vibe is Afro-rock and reggae. Yes reggae: A sort of unmistakable West African nurture of a music style that almost definitely originated in those parts. Here it summons up images of camel motioned bobs along sweltering plains and dusky hours contours of sand dune landscapes. On the ‘anxious cyclical thoughts’ proffered ‘Adja Tarha’ that reggae lilt and drift is sped up to sound like a funky King Sunny Adé.

Always sounding lovely, occasionally like a serenade, the boys embrace the romantic, inviting in a female singer to voice the love interest, and the sweetened caress of a flute.  Together it sounds simply beautiful but earthy.

Staying in the Sub-Sahara but heading towards the north of it, the soft bluesy yearn ‘Tarha Tasidwart’ picks up some Spanish guitar flourishes and a lilt of Aziza Brahim. The finale, and single, ‘Hegh Tenerenin’ has room for some phaser church organ.

Anything but nostalgic, Assouf is alive, bustling, and warm with the sound and spirit of love and peace. It seems remarkable that in the face of such overwhelming odds, the band could deliver such earnest quality and depth. Toumastine tell their story not through words but feel and rhythm; never once wasting a single note, sound in conveying and capturing an evolution from humble beginnings to international success. Believe me, this band is on the up. Expect to see it in next month’s choice list of albums-of-2021.

Past Tuareg Music Highlights From Our Archives…

Kel Assouf ‘Black Tenere’. (2019)

Tamikrest ‘Tamotaït’. (2020)

Terakaft ‘Alone’. (2015)

Khalab & M’ Berra Ensemble ‘M’ Berra’. (2021)

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com 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 https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

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