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.

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