Blues comes full circle with African group’s Grammy win


During the Grammy Awards last month, Tinariwen, a band of Tuareg-Berber musicians from the Sahara Desert region of Mali, won the award for best world music album for their most recent disc, “Tassili.” The award marked the first substantial mainstream recognition of a musical wave that formed in the deserts of West Africa over the last three decades and spread slowly across the Atlantic before breaking beyond the shores of America last year.

Formed in 1979, Tinariwen has only recently gained significant attention for their integration of African rhythms and melodies with American rock, a mix that is often labeled ‘desert blues.’ The group’s driving, hypnotic sound has made them the darlings of such western rock acts as Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Radiohead, and former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, who said of his first exposure to their songs, “I felt this was the music I’d been looking for all my life.

While one listen to any of the groups five albums provides proof enough that the laurels are more than deserved, it also offers an uncannily familiar sonic experience for anyone who’s paid attention to the sounds emanating from one of the more isolated backwaters of the American blues scene over the last few decades.

The churning, repetitive drone of the music developed by the inhabitants of the hill country of Northern Mississippi has little in common with its more famous cousin from the state’s Delta region. Much like the blues players from the Piedmont area of North Carolina, the hill country musicians put their own unique spin on the music, in this case stripping it down and concentrating on its percussive rhythm, which retains many of the African influences preserved in the ensemble playing of the regions fife and drum bands.

Among the first, and last, blues musicians to gain widespread popularity with this sound was John Lee Hooker, whose one chord, menace-laced boogie offered a decided contrast to the more sophisticated offerings of musicians such as Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, and Elmore James during the electric blues surge of the 1950s.

Beginning with a handful of recordings released by the Mississippi-based Fat Possum label in the early 1990s, the music of North Mississippi began to receive attention as a sort of raw, hard-core alternative to the lightweight, beer commercial blues that dominated at the time.

The most remarkable musicians to come to light during this time were Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, two elder statesman of Mississippi music who were virtually unknown outside of their hometowns.

The music these men played was, in some respects, strikingly similar to that of Tinariwen: winding, trance-inducing guitars set against a driving beat and chant-like melodies, a combination alternately exhilarating and spooky.

Oddly enough the album for which they received the Grammy, “Tassili,” finds Tinariwen largely eschewing the charged electric sound of their previous releases, focusing instead on acoustic-based compositions that echo not only the folk music of their home country but the pre-World War II blues of the American south. The record continues the group’s inroads into the U.S. pop market, featuring appearances by western musicians such as Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV On The Radio, Wilco guitar virtuoso Nels Cline and the horns of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

African music has made frequent inroads into the U.S, pop market in the past, often in predictably muted, homogenized forms such as Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album and the work of indie rock bands like Vampire Weekend. For a short time, the music was also in vogue among the pioneering bands of 1960s rock, as witnessed by the Moroccan influences that crept into the music of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones during their experimental heydays.

Similarly, with the attention afforded North Mississippi blues over the last decade and a half, the music’s elusive, ill-lit vibe has been an obvious touchstone for a number of younger bands, most notably The Black Keys, perhaps the most popular, no-frills rock band on the planet. They even recorded an entire E.P. of Kimbrough’s songs, “Chulahoma,” named after the location of their unsung heroes Mississippi juke joint.

Lyrically Tinariwen chooses to focus on the struggles of their war torn homeland rather than the typical blues and pop concerns of romance and violence. That choice would seem to stem not from any moral concern but instead from the pasts of the group’s members, who share a history that makes the normal hard luck, hard living tales of the typical blues musician seem like the stuff of children’s books.

Tinariwen was founded by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who at age four witnessed the execution of his father, a Tuareg rebel, during a 1963 uprising in Mali. In the late 1970s he joined other musicians from the Tuareg rebel community, and began exploring the protest music of Moroccan and Algerian groups as well as bootlegged copies of albums by Elvis Presley, Dire Straits, Santana, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin,, and Jimi Hendrix.

In 1980, the group members answered a decree from Libyan ruler Muammar al-Gaddafi inviting all young Tuareg men to receive full military training in order to further his territorial ambitions in Chad, Niger and elsewhere.

In 1989, the musicians left Libya and moved to Ag Alhabib’s home country of Mali. The following year the Tuareg people of Mali revolted against their government, with some members of Tinariwen participating as rebel fighters. After a peace agreement was reached in January 1991, the musicians left the military and devoted themselves to music full time.

Fascinating as the group’s history is, the real story of their success is the resilience of a musical language which neither war, slavery, nor abject poverty has extinguished, and its echoes throughout the Western world, from the hills of North Mississippi to the concert stages of New York and beyond.

Listeners should come to the music of Tinariwen not as historians or anthropologists, but as music fans prepared to open their ears and take in, fully, the unique art of one of the finest rock bands on the planet.


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