As I was getting psyched to see the band Tinariwen for the third time, a friend said, "Yeah, Tinariwen. They’re great, but they just do the same thing over and over." But, oh, that thing they do. I just can’t get enough of it.
I’ve seen them five or six times now and no stopping – they’re back on tour in the states this winter (Highline and Bell House in NY February 18 and 19, respectively) and I will be there.
But there are now other southern Saharan guitar bands on the touring circuit. Terakaft – featuring former Tinariwen members; Tidawt (which has a part-time base in California) the Tuareg / Woodabe hybrid Etran Finatawa; and the raw and wild Western Saharan band Group Doueh, which made its European debut last summer. But Tinariwen, with founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib still firmly at the helm, remains global standard-bearers of the so-called “Desert Blues” movement.
Tinariwen: Imidiwan: Companions (World Village)
And the band’s recordings are all absolutely compelling. But good as the cds have been, one thing that bothered Ibrahim was that the band always had to go to urban studios in Mali or Europe to record. But there are no studios in the desert. So the band recruited an old friend, Jean-Paul Romann, engineer for French band Lo Jo. Lo Jo had been instrumental in bringing Tinariwen to Europe and starting the Festival in the Desert. Jean-Paul flew set up a makeshift studio in a house in Ibrahim’s village of Tessalit, and there recorded the 2009 cd / dvd release Imidiwan: Companions. The cd captures the band deeply in its element, truly the closest thing to being there. It is earthy and beautiful and hypnotic – perhaps a bit earthier and tad less electric than their earlier cds, but in that way more evocative of how the musicians would have gotten together and traded musical ideas back in the early days. As an added treat, the dvd gives a taste of the sessions themselves and also a more general slice of life of the band in Tessalit.
Tinariwen, the blues and rock influenced guitar band of Tuareg musicians from the Saharan regions of Mali, is one of the great world music phenomena of the decade. Their story has been well-documented.
Tinariwen's success kicked off a trend: the first decade of the century was notable for the arrival of a number of guitar-centered world music projects onto the international touring circuit. This guitar ascendance has been one of several avenues by which there has been, I believe (or perhaps want to believe), an increasing understanding that "world music" (however we define that - but we will save that discussion for another day) and rock and roll are not mutually exclusive. Not that these are all specifically rock-meets-world projects (although there are definitely some, like Dengue Fever in the US and Yat-Kha in Europe). It's more of an overall sensibility. A few other favorite guitar-driven cds released for the world music market in 2009:
Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara — Tell No Lies (Real World)
Justin Adams, the UK guitarist deeply influenced by Saharan guitar sounds, whose c.v. includes both playing in Robert Plant's band and producing an earlier Tinariwen album, has lately he's been mixing it up to great effect with a brilliant Gambian fiddler now based in the UK, Juldeh Camara. Camara's dad is a traditional healer - marabou - and so he grew up playing the riti, a vertically held fiddle, in ritual settings - but also purely for pleasure. He had heard Justin's solo cd and when he arrived in the UK Adams was one of the first people he called. It was a match made in heaven - their collaborative sound is swirling, trancey and psychedelic (Madam Mariama), at times bluesy (as on Fulani Coochie Man), at times contemplative (Futa Jalo). But Justin also likes to dip back into his formative love for American rock and roll and R & B, as in Kele Kele - "No Passport, No Visa" - which employs the classic Bo Diddley beat, and Banjul Girl - which uses a Latin rhythmic base but in a manner reminiscent of certain 50s R&B songs. Here's the thing: I'm a sucker for cross-cultural hybridism, attempts to blend different styles from different places. And there is real depth in the idea of musically acting out the connection between black African and African-American music. Sometimes this sort of thing doesn't quite land - it can seem forced or artificial. But these guys nail it.
Najma Aktar and Gary Lucas: Rishte (World Village)
And speaking of blues-tinged cross-cultural collaborations...
Najma is a fine London based South Asian singer whose European debut Qareeb in 1989, a jazzy adaptation of the popular poetic form, ghazal, was a sensation in world music circles. It's still one of my all-time favorites. But while that album possessed a magical blend of voice, poetry and sublime, shimmery instrumental settings, her later cds never quite achieved the same resonance - getting less earthy and sometimes even a bit cheesy. But she comes back down to earth on Rishte by teaming up with the blues and rock guitarist Gary Lucas. Lucas famously played with the American original, Captain Beefheart, in a late version of Beefheart's Magic Band, and is known for his creative multi-dimensional playing. He is also curious about international music in a way that is, I would argue, at least for his generation less typical of American guitarists than for English blokes like Justin Adams. I often spot him in the audience at world musicky gigs, and this is not his first venture into musical globalism; the 2001 cd The Edge of Heaven saw him taking on vintage Shanghai pop repertoire. So it's a sensible pairing and it comes off quite well. Despite the blues link Lucas' musical palette is quite different from Adams, and while he plays electric as well as acoustic on this cd there are strong rural blues overtones. I don't think Rishte quite achieves the transcendent power of Qareeb. But it is a lovely cd with some truly stirring moments and it is far and away Najma's most beautiful recording since Qareeb.
Clay Ross: Matuto (ylaC Music)
Here on the local scene, Telecaster-wielding songwriter Clay Ross is leading the guitar-meets-world revolution. Clay, who has plenty of experience playing Brazilian music playing with Cyro Baptista's dynamic band Beat the Donkey, has set off to create his own musical concoction of sounds from Brazil and, intriguingly, the southeastern United States. He's ably assisted by some of the leading lights of the city's lively northeast-Brazil musical appreciation society: drummer Scott Kettner of Nation Beat and accordionist Rob Curto of Forro For All, plus a cameo by Baptista. Clay is playing on a certain psychic resonance that exists between the rural sounds of the Brazilian northeast and the American southeast, which though perhaps less directly connected musically, does have a similarity to the connection Justin Adams draws between African roots and the blues. And of course Brazilian music is deeply rooted in African influences, and South America and Africa influence New Orleans (and indeed there is a zydeco tinged track on the cd), so really, it's not so far away after all. I would say that the genre-blending is a bit more overt, less subtle than on the cds discussed above - you do get the sense of this as being something of a conceptual work in progress. But there are some great moments, including the infectious opening track Recife, a tribute to the musical hotbed of northeast Brazil, and (though not really a guitar track) a raw and rocking berimbau-driven take on Blind Willie Johnson’s spiritual classic John the Revelator.
Bomba Estéreo: Blow Up (Nacional Records)
Let's wrap up our world music guitar 2009 thread with a band that maybe at first glance isn't a guitar band. But I think this is a good indicator of how rock and roots cross-fertilization is on the rise. Simon Mejia is a guitarist from Bogota who grew up playing rock and roll but gradually became interested in the African-rooted coastal styles of Colombia, especially the traditional cumbia rhythm but also the Congolese-guitar-band influenced champeta. Cumbia has had an unlikely revival in hip young dance club and dj circles in South America, particularly the Zizek scene in Colombia. It's another of those avenues I mentioned at the top of this post, whereby unlikely traditional forms are being morphed by young hipsters, redefined with a rock and roll ethos (music from the Balkans and Eastern Europe is yet another stream where this is happening, and also Afrobeat in a certain way). But while most of the music coming out of Zizek is sample-based electronic musical assemblage, Mejia's Bomba Estéreo is, well, a real live band. Although the project did start in his bedroom, and he blends in plenty of samples and electronic layers in the studio and in performance. But live, Bomba Estéreo led by charismatic vocalist Liliana Saumet conveys pure rock power. Blow Up has its ups and downs and since it is riding the coattails of a trend, I would have a bit of a wait-and-see approach to the band: Can they transcend the trend and really create their own distinctive identity that will last after cumbia has gone back to just being cumbia? But there is a lot of great energy here, definitely one of the better musical outgrowths of this trend even if it were ti be only that - and it's definitely one of my favorites of the past year.