Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Friday Night in Brooklyn: Lebanon to Mali

Friday night at Prospect Park, the monsoon lasted for about fifteen minutes. Then, almost magically, the sun came out and shortly thereafter Lebanese-American multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba and his ensemble – cello, violin, upright bass and drums – took the stage and turned it into a Wonderful Land. That’s the title of Saba’s latest album, and it’s an understatement. Saba’s sweeping, sometimes dreamy, sometimes majestic compositions span the entirety of the Middle East as well as Europe, exemplified by the eclectic Waltz for My Father, which began with a gently swaying baroque-tinged Bach-like theme based on a Russian folk melody and then shifted abruptly but gracefully to the desert. The opening mini-suite, Nirvana, followed a similar course. Saba welcomed the slowly growing crowd with a casually meandering oud taqsim before signaling the group to join him for a warily joyous levantine dance. Throughout the show, Saba would switch instruments mid-song, just as he did here, the piece’s windswept melody afloat on his bittersweet flute lines. This was soul music in Middle Eastern modes.

Another flute tune, Breeze from the South, Saba told the crowd, was meant to evoke a specifically Lebanese ambience, “Like from New Jersey to New York,” he grinned. He opened a traditional Lebanese folk melody with a long improvisation, drummer April Centrone eventually adding a stately bounce on daf frame drum. Saba switched to the jangly, overtone-rich Turkish saz lute for the album’s title track, a hypnotic feast of jangle and clang over pedaled bass, a tricky hypnotic rhythm and a mysteriously swirling cymbal solo by Centrone (whose ability to get a standard rock drum kit to sound like an entire Middle Eastern percussion ensemble was absolutely stunning – her elegant solo toward the end of the show drew the loudest applause of the entire set). They closed with a slinky Egyptian piece with a vintage 1940s ambience, violinist Megan Gould joining in tandem with Saba before reaching ecstatically for the night sky and taking the show out on a high note over the hypnotic bounce and rumble of the drums. And if the cello had been higher in the sound mix – it was practically inaudible beyond the front rows – it would have taken the blend of instruments up yet another notch. Saba leads the exhilarating New York Arabic Orchestra at Damrosch Park out back of Lincoln Center on Friday, August 5 at 7:30 PM.

Malian chanteuse and hoteliere Oumou Sangare and her band headlined. Sangare is an important figure there, a powerful lyricist whose fearlessly feminist stance has won her a global following. To an American audience unfamiliar with the languages she sings in, that aspect of her music is unfortunately lost. Behind her, the band launched into an endless series of grooves that touched on soukous and Afrobeat in places, while exploring themes from both the north and the south of her home country, the south being her home turf, one of the reasons why her music has little in common with the dusky, hypnotic desert blues for which Mali is best known. With the ping of the kora (West African harp), the clang of a Gibson SG guitar, snappy, trebly, fusionesque electric bass, drums and djembe, the group shifted quickly from one song to the next. After awhile, the tunes blended together to the point where it was hard to keep track where they’d been. Which seemed to be intentional. This was a dance party, Sangare leading the way with her charismatic presence and powerful, frequently dramatic alto voice.

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July 31, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Terakaft’s Aratan N Azawad – A Desert Blues Classic

Terakaft (“Caravan” in the Tamashek dialect of their home base, Mali) have a reputation as the hardest-rocking of the North African Tuareg desert blues bands. Their latest album Aratan N Azawad – out now from World Village Music – flips the script, edging further toward the hypnotic otherworldliness of the rest of their nomadic brethren. Like Tinariwen, with whom they’ve shared band members, Terakaft has had a rotating cast of characters – no surprise, considering that the desert blues community is a closeknit one. Many of these musicians are also freedom fighters, since the territory their nomadic ancestors roamed for literally millennia has been decimated by war over the years. This happens to be the first Terakaft album without founder Kedou Ag Ossad, which may account for the more pensive, trance-rock sound here – although the songs are as terse as always, seldom going on for more than four minutes. This latest edition of the band includes a two-guitar frontline of Liya Ag Ablil and Sanou Ag Ahmed, with Abdallah Ag Ahmed on bass and Mathias Vaguenez on drums, with what sounds like the whole band taking turns with the vocals’ mantralike call-and-response.

The swaying, bouncy, upbeat title track works a bluesy riff as the guitars snake and intertwine, bristling with natural distortion, bass rising unexpectedly mid-riff over a simple, insistent 4/4 beat. The second cut is funkier, lit up by a Chicago-style blues lead with slinky bent notes. The title track raises the question of how aware the band might be that what they’re playing is essentially a brooding folk-rock song, sort of a Tuareg counterpart to As Tears Go By; an educated guess is that any resemblance is probably intentional. The following cut offers a nonchalant, polyrhythmic vibe similar to Etran Finatawa; the one after that reverts to the bounce of the opening track but with an even simpler and more optimistic feel.

The best song here, Amazzagh, harks back to the band’s earlier work, packed with delicious reverb-toned lead guitar and a 1960s psychedelic folk tinge. The rest of the tracks range from a trio of Tinariwen-style, suspensefully unwinding one-chord vamps; another with Afrobeat overtones; and a 60s soul shuffle done as desert blues. To western ears, without the benefit of understanding the Tamashek lyrics, all indications are that they’re characteristically allusive: offering encouragement to the young not to give up hope; mourning the loss of ancestral lands; and more direct, slightly more fervent appeals to keep the party going. As this band deserves to: this is their party for their right to fight. For fans of desert blues, it’s an essential album.

July 20, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vieux Farka Toure Kicks Ass on The Secret – How About the Special Guests?

Many years ago, a bunch of early jam band guys got together and decided to make a tribute to Muddy Waters. The result was a lacklustre album called Fathers and Sons (it’s easy to find, if you really want to hear it). The guys from the Butterfield Blues Band and their friends were bigger fans of Muddy’s than he was of them, but probably since it beat working as the handyman at Chess Records (which is what the guy who might have been the greatest blues slide guitarist of all time did when he wasn’t on tour or in the studio), Waters did the album. And phoned it in. Fast forward a little more than forty years: some of the big names on the American jam band circuit have discovered powerhouse Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure (the oldest son of the great Ali Farka Toure). And they’re all over his new album, The Secret. The biggest secret here is that almost all of them elevate their game – with one exception, this isn’t a bunch of white wannabes patronizing somebody from another tradition whose music they admire. For the most part, this is a clinic in how musicians from different cultures can create real alchemy if they’re inspired.

What’s nicest to see is that Toure is allowed to be the star he is, doubletracking and tripletracking here and the result is exhilarating. Acoustic rhythm guitarist Ali Magassa holds it down incisively and hypnotically with broken chords and simple, direct riffs over the loping calabash and djembe of Souleymane Kane. The first track, Sokosondou sets the stage for what’s to come with an endless succession of molten lava hammer-ons and hypnotic call-and-response vocals in Toure’s native dialect. Toure plays acoustic on the second cut, Aigna, where Derek Trucks does a surprisingly killer evocation of a sitar with his slide guitar, livening up the dusky atmospherics, getting darker and growlier as it goes on. Guess all that hanging out with Susan Tedeschi has been a good thing for him! The fourth track, Ali is a vertigo-inducing polyrhythmic forest of guitars, Toure throwing in a subtle, ominous chromatic allusion once in awhile

The first of the Malian/American hybrids, here, Watch Out is a swaying, funky number featuring Eric Krasno (of the generic Soulive and dubious Lettuce), who contributes some biting, vibrato-toned incisions with a little wah thrown in for good measure. Aaron Neville, who knows a little something about hypnotic grooves, hangs back with the beat and adds terse, smart organ fills; Toure winds it out with one of his unstoppable, stunningly precise, adrenalizing solos. A boisterously swaying, mostly acoustic number, Wonda Guay has Toure lingering overhead like an out-of-control helicopter. The title track, a hypnotic, resolute instrumental features a guitar track by his late father along with spiky textures from Ganda Tounkara’s ngoni and Cheikh Diallo’s distant flute atmospherics. It’s one of those tracks where it’s hard to figure out who’s playing what – you just get lost in it. The poignantly catchy closing track, Touri, is much the same. Borei, a fast, shuffling concert favorite is a feast of Toure textures, fast fluid runs, chords blasting on the beat and a searing, mostly one-note solo midway through.

The most traditional desert blues song here, Sankare Diadje has a typical call-and- response over a hypnotic, circular two-chord theme. Meandering, midtempo and ominously modal, Gido features John Scofield, who slinks through a wary, slowly furtive chromatically-charged solo and only puts the bite on once, at the very end, when he can’t contain himself any longer. Amani Quay begins with a gorgeous twelve-string acoustic intro that gives way to a shuffling, hypnotic groove, Toure picking it up and blasting through yet another rapidfire solo, this one a little sunbaked and slightly restrained. The only dud here features the clown prince of wretched jamband excess, Dave Matthews. When you put this on your ipod, you’ll want to delete track three. But what a pleasant surprise this is – and reason to check out what Derek Trucks and Eric Krasno have been up to lately.

June 11, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Boubacar Traore Returns with More Hypnotic Desert Blues Magic

This is the kind of album you find at Awesome Tapes from Africa. Along with Ali Farka Toure, Boubacar Traore is one of the fathers of desert blues: now close to 70, the superstar Malian guitarist’s voice has taken on a flintier edge as the years have passed, but otherwise his playing is as hypnotically gripping as it was forty years ago when his cassettes began circulating in his native land. His latest album Mali Denhou is characteristic: sometimes brooding, sometimes warmly circling, it’s a display of minimalist intricacy that European composers struggle trying to achieve. Traore does this effortlessly, backed by spare, simple percussion and mournful chromatic harmonica, occasionally with dual acoustic guitar tracks.

Traore’s solos are typically limited to an expansive bar or two, often to signal a change or the return of a chorus: the harmonica is the lead instrument here, and it is excellent, woundedly spiraling or letting the end of a phrase trill out over the steady rotation of the guitar riff underneath. Traore sings in his native dialect, usually with the patient stoicism that characterizes Malian desert music, occasionally rising to meet the crescendo of the guitars. The album’s opening tracks feature marimba interwoven among the guitars, so seamlessly that it’s impossible to figure out who’s playing what unless you’re paying close attention. A couple of the later ones feature a lute that sounds like a higher-pitched oud, snaking through the thicket of casually intricate textures. An early track has a lullaby feel; the final one runs a warm circular motif over and over. Another hints at an upbeat 1-4-5 change, evocative of some of reggae legend Burning Spear’s simpler, more direct, African-influenced songs. There’s also a mini-epic that begins with a distinctly flamenco-tinged riff. But as with the rest of Traore’s voluminous back catalog, it’s the dusky otherworldly minor modes that deliver the most chills, and there are plenty of them, from the stately title track, an anthem in 6/8 time, to a couple of rhythmically trickier, slowly unwinding numbers, building from skeletal yet incisive hooks that essentially serve as basslines. Imagine the expanse of the desert from beyond the tent, as the sun goes down at last and a breeze breaks the spell of the heat for the first time. This is magical music from a magical player who’s been around a long time. Fans of the current crop of desert blues bands like Tinariwen or Etran Finatawa have a lot to enjoy here. It’s out now on the adventurous French Lusafrica label.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Malian Desert Blues Icon Khaira Arby Brings Good Times and Intensity to the Bell House Tonight

Khaira Arby brings her hypnotic, psychedelic blend of desert blues, rock and soul to the Bell House tonight in the midst of a tour that’ll take the iconic Malian singer across the country in the next week, culminating in an appearance at South by Southwest. For a woman who defied the odds and achieved stardom at a time when women needed their husbands’ permission to sing in public, her career is pretty extraordinary. Having the famed Ali Farka Toure, commonly known as the father of desert blues, marry into her family eased the way; in the time since, with her insistent, defiant, otherworldly wail, she’s become sort of the Aretha Franklin of Mali. Her Bell House show is actually the second Brooklyn appearance of her career: for the lucky few who knew about it, she played a free concert at Zebulon last fall. This time out she’ll be sharing the stage with opening act Sway Machinery, with whom she collaborated on the new album The House of Friendly Ghosts, Vol. 1 and then playing a full set with her band.

Arby’s been a potent force for women’s rights, bucking tradition and winning an impressive amount of converts along the way. Her latest album Timbuktu Tarab – whose title is a pun referring to a part of Mali as well as the Arabic “tarab,” meaning “joy” – fearlessly stands up for women asserting their right to self-determination, most notably on the psychedelic rock-tinged anthem Feryene, a blistering attack on the practice of female genital mutilation. Yet as intensely charismatic as she can be, she explains that it’s humor that bonds her with western audiences who don’t understand a single word of the four languages she sings in (Arabic, Tamashek, Bambara and Sonrahi): she and the crowd find a universality in the slinky groove and call-and-response of her hypnotic, undulating songs.

Offstage, Arby is anything but a diva. A versatile songwriter as talented as any other artist to come out of Mali (a small nation which has become to this era what Jamaica was in the 1970s), she brings her songs to her band pretty much ready go to: she gives her band liberty to do their own arrangements. Likewise, her role on the Sway Machinery album was as much as a composer as singer: the composite of the Brooklyn rock band and her own group ended up doing three of her songs, along with others where she was invited to add her own vocals and arrangements. A singer since she was able to raise her voice, she is also an accomplished violinist. Although her most recent material displays a vivid psychedelic rock influence (the Pretty Things and other British psychedelic bands of the 1960s come to mind), rock is a relatively new thing for her (Hendrix is a favorite). And while like everyone else on the planet, she’s been avidly watching recent events in North Africa as revolution and the hope for democracy have swept the region, she keeps her music separate from politics: a crusader for peace and author of numerous antiwar songs, she remains an optimist, she reminds, as she’s been for decades. Songs about peace have rarely been as vigorous and exciting as Khaira Arby’s – this is a concert not to miss.

For those out of town, the rest of the tour schedule is:

3/8 El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles
3/9 Great American Music Hall, San Francisco
3/12 Aladdin Theatre, Portland, OR
3/13 The Crocodile, Seattle, WA
3/15 Hi Dive, Denver, Co
3/17 SXSW Festival, Austin, TX
3/19 SXSW

March 5, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Thoughtful, Pensive Collaboration from Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal

An elegant collection of mostly duo performances, the aptly titled Chamber Music by Malian kora virtuoso Ballaké Sissoko and enterprising French cellist Vincent Segal is a thoughtfully paced, generous collaboration. It is most likely composed all the way through, yet has a quietly inspired improvisational feel, as the two musicians trade off themes, lead melodies and basslines. Sometimes a bright kora theme will be transposed to the cello’s lower registers, other times they’ll switch a pizzicato cello bassline to the kora. The motifs here are very terse: Sissoko plays nimble, intricately twining lines rather than indulging in lickety-split displays of speed, while the cello is employed more frequently for rhythm than for atmospherics. With the lead lines mostly carried by the kora, this has much more of a Malian feel than a European one, although a couple of Segal compositions – particularly the marvelously pensive Histoire de Molly, with its eerie cello arpeggios – introduce elements of the baroque. This is an excellent headphone album, equally effective as late-night wind-down music.

The title track is a sort of synopsis of the whole album, a stately, swaying groove where both musicians echo each other, the kora introduces a dance and then turns it over to the cello – and then Sissoko’s solo, rather than being a crescendo, brings it down again. The next track is hypnotic and circular – imagine this as played by an electric band and you’d have Afrobeat. The following composition, by Sissoko, is basically a canon, featuring a rippling, twinkling balafon solo from Fassery Diabate. The album concludes with a wistful, 6/8 ballad, a suspensefully cinematic theme that kicks off with Indian raga influences, and a long, pensive, dynamically-charged overture. Throughout the album, the subtle, conversational interplay between the two musicians is full of unexpected twists and turns, a seemingly endless series of gently surprising ideas.

December 25, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Khaira Arby’s Timbuktu Tarab Reinvents Desert Blues

Khaira Arby is sort of the Aretha Franklin of Mali and what’s more, she’s got an amazing band. They’re playing Joe’s Pub on 9/29 at 7 and if her new album Timbuktu Tarab is any indication, the show should be pretty intense. A cousin of desert blues legend Ali Farka Toure, Arby sings in four indigenous dialects with a fearless, raspy wail, unafraid to buck convention and challenge traditional Muslim social order (one can only wonder if she’d get away with this if she wasn’t related to Malian duskcore nobility ). Her band is just as intense. The dual guitars of Abdramane Touré and M’Barka Dembelé blend hypnotically with a wild eclecticism that ranges from snaky desert blues to oldschool American soul, sixties psychedelic rock and even tinges of country music, further enhanced by Ebellaou Yattara’s spiky ngoni lute, the screechy fiddle of Zoumane Tekereta and an exuberant harmony vocal duo.

The album opens on a pretty standard desert blues note but hints at the stunning originality that will come soon after, the band stopping cold and letting Arby wail until the central riff kicks in again. The second cut, simply titled Khaira, spins along on a hypnotic web of interlocking guitar lines, intricate, lightning hammer-ons over a growling, distorted, percussive attack. The methodically hypnotic Djaba, a tribute to a legendary warrior, bounces with swirling flute-like fiddle and more interlocking guitars.

A shout-out to a friend, Dja Cheikna has the backup vocals going full tilt, a dazzling guitar solo and stomping twin-guitar outro. The unapologetic feminist anthem Wayidou has tinges of ornate 70s art-rock; a blistering attack on female genital mutilation, Feryene begins with a haunting psychedelic rock intro straight out of the Pretty Things circa 1967, then winds down into otherworldly duskcore, overtones flying like little banshees from the off-center interplay of the guitars. And the band pull out all the stops on Delya, a showstopper and a genuine high point in the history of desert blues, mixing psychedelic rock, art-rock, Afrobeat and desert blues and a passionate performance from the backup choir. There are also a couple of vividly soul-influenced numbers, one with some unexpected, bucolic American C&W tinges; the last cut on the album is a cross between late 60s psychedelic soul music and desert blues. It’s hard to imagine a more original album in any style of music released this year: you’ll see this on our best of 2010 list in December.

September 9, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vieux Farka Toure Burns His Guitar

Vieux Farka Toure didn’t really burn his guitar, at least the way Hendrix burned his. He just turned in an incandescent performance. It’s a useful rule of thumb that if a performer plays well in daylight, he or she will rip up whatever joint they’re in come nightfall. Or maybe Toure’s just a morning person. Thursday afternoon in Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, the Malian guitarist didn’t let the crushing tropical heat and humidity phase him, blasting through one long, hypnotic, minimalistically bluesy number after another.

Like his father, desert blues pioneer Ali Farka Toure, he’ll hang on a chord for minutes at a clip, building tension sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes with savage abandon. That intensity – along with a long, pointless percussion solo- is what got the audience – an impressively diverse mix of daycamp kids and their chaperones, office workers and smelly trendoids – on their feet and roaring. Using his signature icy, crystalline, Albert Collins-esque tone, he took his time getting started, subtly varying his dynamics. What he does is ostensibly blues, inasmuch as his assaultive riffage generally sticks within the parameters of the minor-key blues scale. But the spacious, slowly unwinding melodies are indelibly Malian, with the occasional latin tinge or a shift into a funkier, swaying rhythm. This time out the band included a bass player along with Toure’s steady second guitarist, playing spikily hypnotic vamps on acoustic, along with a sub drummer who was clearly psyched to be onstage and limited himself to a spirited, thumping pulse, and a duo of adrenalized percussionists, one on a large, boomy calabash drum.

Lyrics don’t seem to factor much into this guy’s songwriting: a couple of numbers featured call-and-response on the chorus in Toure’s native tongue, but otherwise it was all about the guitar. As the energy level rose, he’d launch into one volley after another of blistering 32nd-note hammer-ons. And he wouldn’t waste them – after he’d taken a crescendo up as far as he could, he’d signal to the band and in a split second they’d end the song cold. It’s hard to think of another player who blends purposefulness with blinding speed to this degree (although, again, Albert Collins comes to mind – although Toure is more playful than cynical). Toure’s show this past spring at le Poisson Rouge was the last on an obviously exhausting tour: he’d sprint as far as he could, then back off when it was obvious that he needed a breather. Thursday was more of a clinic in command: Toure was completely in control this time out. Like most great guitarists, he spends a lot of time on the road (and has a killer new live album just out, very favorably reviewed here), so you can expect another New York appearance sooner than later.

August 2, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Vieux Farka Toure – Live

A characteristically intense, often exhilarating album by one of the great guitarists of our time. Vieux Farka Toure’s dad Ali Farka Toure was one of the inventors of duskcore, the patiently meandering, hypnotic desert blues. Unlike his dad, Vieux Farka Toure is not exactly a patient player, but in the family tradition he’s also invented his own style of music. Whether it’s blues, or an electrified and electrifying version of Malian folk music is beside the point. He may be playing in a completely different idiom, but Vieux Farka Toure’s approach is essentially the same as Charlie Parker’s, creating mini-symphonies out of seemingly endless, wild volleys of notes within a very simple chord structure. Bird played the blues; sometimes Toure does. Other times he just jams on a single chord. Whatever the case, Toure is the rare fret-burner who still manages to make his notes count for something: this album isn’t just mindless Buckethead or Steve Vai-style shredding. The obvious comparison (and one which invites a lot of chicken-or-the-egg questions, which may be academic) is to hypnotic Mississippi hill country bluesmen like Junior Kimbrough and Will Scott.

Toure’s attack is fluid and precise, utilizing lightning-fast hammer-ons whether he’s sticking to the blues scale, or working subtle shifts in timbre and rhythm during the songs’ quieter passages. He plays with a cool, watery, chorus-box tone very reminiscent of Albert Collins. Here he’s backed by an acoustic rhythm guitarist who holds it down with smooth yet prickly repetitive riffs, along with percussion, sometimes bass and a guest guitarist or two (Australian slide player Jeff Lang converses and eventually duels with him memorably on one track). The album collects several of the hottest moments of a 2009 European and Australian tour.

The midtempo opening number is a teaser, only hinting at the kind of speed Toure is capable of. As with several of the other numbers here, call-and-response is involved, this time with band members (later on he tries to get the audience to talk back to him in his own vernacular, with particularly mystified results). The slow jam that serves as the second track here is a study in dynamics and tension-building up to the ecstatic wail of the next cut.

A couple of songs here work a boisterous, reggae-tinged groove; another echoes the thoughtful, Castles Made of Sand side of Hendrix. When Toure’s taken the energy as high as anyone possibly could, sometimes he’ll stop cold and end the song there rather than doing something anticlimactic. He winds up the album with a big blazing boogie with a trick ending and then a stomp featuring a couple of characteristically paint-peeling solos along with a breakdown where the band takes it low and suspenseful until Toure is ready to wail again. If lead guitar is your thing, this is somebody you need to know – and somebody you really ought to see live. Like most of the great lead guitarists, Toure pretty much lives on the road – his next NYC gig is at Metrotech Park in Brooklyn at noon on July 29.

July 2, 2010 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tinariwen – Aman Iman: Water Is Life

It’s not often that a band lives up to its press. This time, believe the hype: Tuareg nomad rockers Tinariwen are every bit as good as the recent lovefest in the Western press would have you believe. And they deserve it: it’s something of a miracle that this band exists at all. A close-knit but diverse group of Tuareg freedom fighters driven from their traditional stomping grounds in their native Mali by a repressive regime and the encroachment of Western multinationals, they add electric instruments and a small dose of rock riffage to the ambient, chorus-driven traditional desert songs of their native culture. The result is hypnotic and very captivating. Ali Farka Toure is the obvious comparison, but Tinariwen’s material stays closer to the original source. Musicologists will have a field day with this stuff: what they play isn’t a simple chicken-or-the-egg question. When American and British rockers started stealing melodies from across the third word back in the 60s, third worlders were doing exactly the same thing, appropriating rock arrangements, motifs and instrumentation, and it’s clear that Tinariwen have done this to a certain extent. But they aren’t really a rock band: their music is world music in the best sense of the word, original songs based on ancient traditions which also draw on contemporary Malian artists like the aforementioned Ali Farka Toure and Baboucar Traore.

Chord changes aren’t a big part of Tinariwen’s music, yet their sound is as anthemic as it is trance-inducing. While a lot of the songs on this album are very danceable, they don’t bear much if any resemblance to the perennial smiley-facedness of mainstream African pop. Much of their music has a somewhat grim forebearance, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that this is music made by exiles. Their lyrics are in Tamashek, the Tuareg language.

The cd opens with Cler Achel, a slinky groove with call-and-response male/female vocals, two guitars trading off different textures (slightly distorted rhythm with resonant reverb vs. a reverb-driven lead with a lot of fast hammer-ons, providing a sitar-like effect). Very gripping. The next song Mano Dayak begins with a slow intro into a hesitation rhythm, blending electric and acoustic guitars. Eventually a choir of women enters, their voices keening eerily in the upper registers.

Matadjem Yinmixam follows, closer to Ali Farka Toure than the other songs on the album, with meandering, sputtering lead guitar over an insistent staccato rhythm. And finally a chord change (up to a fourth) at the end of the verse! It’s very anthemic as the female backing singers kick in on the chorus. The next track, Ahimana begins with a spoken word intro and then call-and-response with the women in the choir, very hypnotic in syncopated 6/8 time, the vocals just a little behind the beat. After that, the cd continues with the quiet, subdued Soixante Trois. Toumast, arguably the best song on the album brings in layers one at a time: spooky electric guitar hammer-ons, then distorted, staccato electric rhythm guitar, bass, and the drums and vocals. It’s the best song on the cd, with a nice, terse guitar solo after the first verse.

The dark, relentless Ikyadarh Dim features just acoustic guitar, percussion and a single vocal with an additional harmony voice added on the chorus. At one point someone in the band exhales audibly: out of fatigue, exhilaration, exasperation? The hip-shaking yet hypnotic Tamatant Tilay could be a big Mississippi hill country blues number, like something straight out of the T-Model Ford catalog, if it had English lyrics. Likewise, the next track, Assouf is a burning, open-tuned minor-key blues number. The cd closes with the pretty, pastoral, acoustic Izarharh Tenere, somewhat evocative of the Stones’ Moonlight Mile. All in all, a great album, absolutely one of the best of the year, something you should own if you have any sense of adventure.

Memo to Tinariwen management: get this band on the jam band tour. Haitian rockers Tabou Combo made a pile of money off of rich hippies who have nothing better to do than run all over the country with Phish, and so can these guys. Consider it a unique approach to foreign aid: it would be particularly appropriate given everything the band has been through.

December 10, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment