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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ALBUM REVIEW
Words: Dominic Valvona



Vieux Farka Touré  ‘Samba’
Six Degrees Records,  12th May 2017

Lucky enough to have witnessed firsthand the erudite guitar majestic skills of one of Mali’s leading artists last year, as part of Glasgow’s Celtic Connections Festival line-up, I still find myself decidedly jealous of the intimate small audience that were invited to Vieux Farka Touré’s Woodstock Session later that same year in October. A studio recording with a difference, played out and developed live in front of just fifty lucky people in Saugerties, N.Y., Touré’s latest blurs the boundaries between performance and the processes of making an album.

Ever the consummate maestro and backed by an equally accomplished band of musicians, there was some initial apprehension on Touré’s on allowing an audience in to the studio. Though we have the finished product, free of any mistakes, restarts and disagreements, it seems this audience far from unnerving the band, egged it on, with the results sounding effortless and natural. There were overdubs of course and one of the songs was recorded back home in Mali – the calabash driven Ni Negarba. But far from cutting corners or relying on the back catalogue, Touré has fashioned an entirely new songbook of vocal and instrumental material for Samba. Some of which amorphously touches upon unfamiliar influences, including reggae on the unapologetically roots-y swaying Ouaga.

 

Still a commanding presence, though he makes it look easy and so serene, emanating almost uninterrupted waves of phaser-effect guitar permutations and nuanced fretboard noodling, Touré continues to languidly merge his own lyrical form of worship and goodwill with the blues, rock and R&B. Often alluded to as some kind of Saharan Hendrix, his heritage and reputation is actually linked to the more urbane capital of Bamako in the southwest of Mali, which has its very own amalgamation of styles and unique history. Still, those desert blues styles, synonymous with the Tuareg especially, do crossover and can be detected in Touré’s music.

 

Touré is as the Songhai title of his new album Samba translates, the second son of the late Ali Farka Touré, a doyen of the Mali music scene himself who left an indelible mark. If we expand on the title’s meaning, “Samba” is a byword for “one who never breaks”, “who never runs from threats, who is not afraid”. It is even said that those adorned with the name are “blessed with good luck.” Inspired by his ancestry, imbued with three generations, Touré’s album is suffused with special tributes to his family. In the mode of a praise song, the spindly weaved heartfelt Mariam pays homage to the last born of the family, his youngest sister, but is also by extension a paean to both the women of the Peule and “all sisters of the world”. Samba Si Kari, based on a song Touré’s grandfather used to sing to him as a child, pays a reflective impassioned tribute to his parents. Expanding the goodwill further, to those outside the ancestral line, he’s also penned, what sounds like, a hoof-cantering percussive camel ride with celestial desert sky illuminations keyboard – courtesy of old pal Idan Raichel –, sweet dedication to his manager and friend Eric Herman’s daughter Maya. The press release offers a further subtext to this particular song, one of multifaith cohesion; Touré a Muslim and Herman a Jew, spreading a message of tolerance.

 

Outside the family sphere, Touré confronts both Mali’s recent Jihadist takeover – only stopped and defeated by the intervention of the country’s former colonial masters, France – on the radiantly rippling, chorus of voices, funky blues number Homafu Wawa, and environmental issues on the dexterously nimble-fingered bluesy rock, Nature.

 

The almost never-ending efflux, the constant lapping waves of textures that Touré plays, which offer a cyclonic bed on which to add the deftest licks, have never sounded so sagacious and free flowing. This ain’t no Saharan Hendrix at work, this is something else entirely, and better for it. This is the devotional, earthy soul of Mali, channeled through a six-string electric guitar.

 

Originally scheduled for 2015, the Woodstock Session would have still been a revelatory showcase and classic, but with that extra year, with the travails of being in constant demand on the road and the rapid turn of events Samba in 2017 makes even more sense, resonating with a message of respect, peace and tolerance.





ALBUM REVIEW
Words: Dominic Valvona


Tamikrest - Monolith Cocktail

Tamikrest   ‘Kidal’
Released  by  Glitterbeat  Records, 1 7th  March  2017

It’s been five years since Mali was last thrust into the world’s media spotlight; the Nomadic Tuareg’s age-old cause to gain control of an autonomous region in the country’s northwest border was abruptly hijacked by a less than sympathetic, franchise of Al-Qaeda. Declaring an independent state, known as the Azawad, in 2012, the Tuaregs were soon compromised by their miscreant partners; their ambitions reaching far further with an insurgency that threatened to destabilize the entire country. In their wake these extremists reduced many historical and revered sites to dust, and imposed the harshest forms of Islamist rule wherever they went: much to the distress of the Tuaregs.

Though it was more or less all-over within a year, the Mali government was forced to seek military assistance from the former colonial overlords, France, who rapidly quashed the insurgency and uprising, restoring, a sort of, peace to the region. An uneasy calm continues, albeit with a haphazard terrorist campaign (more recently in 2015, with an attack on a hotel in the Mali capital, Bamako) replacing the Islamists previous emboldened charge across the country, and a spiritually restless Tuareg population, trapped between a hostile government and the encroaching threat posed by global corporations eager to commodify their desert home.

Still without a homeland, though liberated from their draconian partners, the Tuareg are once again left, as wanderers in their own lands, the unofficial guardians and custodians of the Saharan wilderness. For now only a dream, best realized and protested through music, the rock’n’roll Bedouins Tamikrest emerge once more from the barren landscape with a message of “power and resistance”, on their fourth, equally entrancing, album Kidal. Paying homage to the strategically and spiritually important cultural trading town of the title, the highly-acclaimed (and rightly so) Tamikrest exude both the sadness and suffering of the dispossessed people who cling to the southwestern Saharan hub that is Kidal: a town which has seen its fair share of fighting, fought over, conquered and reconquered over time, it remains a symbolic home to the Tuareg. This is after all the town that nurtured them and where it all began.


Tamikrest - Monolith Cocktail


Preserving an increasingly endangered ancestral culture and language, Tamikrest’s cause cannot be separated from their music. Yet, rather than protest with bombast or angry rhetoric, they articulate their woes with a poetic, lyrically sauntering cadence. Oasmane Ag Mosa’s earthy lead vocals resonate deeply, even if his timbre maintains a stoic dignified pitch. Backed by Aghaly Ag Mohamedine and Cheick Ag Tiglia on backing and duets, a lulling sweetness transcends, which on occasions adds a certain romanticism to the impassioned struggle. Swaying effortlessly between the meandering and up-tempo, the accentuated dynamics of Mosa and Paul Salvagnac’s entwined, untethered and contoured guitar work, Mohamedine’s “gatherer” Djembe rope-tuned goblet drumming, Nicolas Grupp’s askew backbeats and Tiglia’s smooth, free-roaming bass lines transport the listener to the mystical topography of the desert. Tamikrest’s mirage-style emerges into focus on the opening shimmering camel-procession Mawarnih Tartit, before traversing the vast plains with a drifting echo of Afro funk on Wainan Adobat. But perhaps one of the group’s most off-kilter, dizzying, entranced spells yet is the twilight hour twanged, giddy War Toyed, which has an almost dislocated rhythm. And definitely among their most reflective explorations, Atwitas features Salvagnac’s sublime, mournful and pining slide-guitar work; redolent of Ry Cooder’s own parallel American desert blues evocations.

Written in the desert but recorded in the urban capital of Bamako, Kidal was produced by Mark Mulholland (his last production, the Tony Allen and Haiti ensemble collaboration, AHEO, made our top albums of 2016 features), and mixed by Grammy award winner David Odlum. As a result, the album subtly embraces a wider musical palette, with hints of country and folk on the haunting Tanaka, and, what sounds at times like a strange Malian XTC on the plaintive cry for freedom War Tila Eridaran. And so it has already been noted that western artists, such as Hendrix and even Pink Floyd have had an influence on many African bands. A mutual exchange of course, the home of blues taking a little something back from the West. There’s still no mistaking that inherent African desert sound and passion, even if Kidal reaches out beyond the barren reaches of Mali’s borders for an ever expansive and diversified sound.

Assiduous, confident and articulate, the musicianship shows not so much a progression as a balance between the meditative and rock’n’roll spirit of the Tuareg musical resistance. Tamikrest are as brilliant as ever musically, and Kidal is, despite its plaintive and lamentable subject woes, a beacon of hope in an ever-darkening world of uncertainty.





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