No band in my collection has a backstory like Tinariwen’s. The Malian group came together as refugees living in Algeria after fleeing the civil war in their home country. In between stints as a party band, the members of Tinariwen formed part of a Libyan-trained Tuareg militia group and participated in the Tuareg rebellion that took place in Mali and Niger between 1990 and 1995.
Since I know next to nothing about Northern African music, I probably would never have discovered this album had it not been for the fact that Nels Cline from Wilco and a couple of members of TV on the Radio played on it. (They didn’t play live with the band – they overdubbed their parts from quarters more comfortable than the Sahara). Further research reveals that Tassili was the first Tinariwen album that the band produced using entirely acoustic instruments (the westerners, again the outliers, added the electrified parts and some vocals). The result is a cacophony of voices, claps, guitar drones and effects that can be hypnotizing.
The first few times I listened to this album, it all seemed to blend together, especially since I don’t understand 95% of the lyrics (one song – with the TV on the Radio folks – has English lyrics). But further listening, especially contemplative sessions on headphones, reveals a remarkable, if subtle, range of tempos and sounds that encourage even deeper attention.
If you’d like to learn more about Tinariwen’s story or their previous albums, I found Jody Rosen’s 2007 Slate article on the band a good place to start.