Sound ‘Round: Tinariwen / Rough Guide to the Sahara

Imports from the Middle East, travel ban be damned

Tinariwen – Elwan (Anti-/Epitaph)

This is desert blues in the fashion you’ve come to expect. Arid production. Call-and-response canticles. Pentatonic scales. Riffs that rarely stray from the tonic. Three chords and a sad song in their heart. But it’s no boss man or past lover keeping this loose collection of Tuaregs down, rather Islamist extremists whose ruthless persecution forced them into exile from their North African home. This is their second album recorded on the run and was assembled in Joshua Tree — a rural patch of dust and sand where Bono found religion and Josh Homme resides as queen of the stoners. For Tinariwen, however, Southern California’s oppressive heat is as close to home on this continent as they can get. Though these songs were constructed half a world away from northern Mali, their war-torn roots are never too far away. Over sunburned guitars, they plead for peace and humanity to prevail over hatred and bloodshed. In hope of reconciling with their enemies, the music hums more than rocks. But what they sacrifice in power they make up with resolute politics and profound conviction. The title translates to “elephants,” a nomadic mammal that finds safety in numbers, too. But they may as well have called it “Exile on Main Street.” Here’s hoping they go home soon enough. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Imidiwan n-akall-in” / “Sastanaqqam” / “Talyat”

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara (World Music Network, 2014)

The Sahara desert stretches from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, roughly the same size as the United States. Though the climate is unrelenting as the landscape is rugged, earth’s largest desert is home to nearly three million people — from nomadic Tuaregs, dune-dwelling tribes and city slickers punished for poor civic planning. The aim of this 14-song compilation is to traverse as much geography as possible, highlighting the region’s unifying musical elements while celebrating its differences. Given the area’s recent trend of revolutions and coup d’etats, things rightly get political from the get-go. Nigerien bluesmen Etran Finawata plead for togetherness, an act that’s more than mere symbolism. For them, it’s life or death — their band members come from traditionally warring factions. Then it’s onto Saharawi stalwart Mariem Hassan, who bemoans oppressive regimes just a few years before bone cancer silenced her soaring contralto. Day-to-day struggles abound. But there’s also joy. Ali Hassan Kuban delivers plenty of it with an ebullient horn section and Emmanuel Jal’s smooth baritone is an oasis in a back half loaded with tribal minimalism. He also delivers the album’s only English-spoken verse on “Ya Salam.” “It means peace, and that’s actually what we need.” When he says “we,” he means us. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Legneiba” / “Mabruk” / “Ya Salam”

Click here to stream the album on Spotify. 


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