Various – Songs For Desert Refugees (2012)

There’s a whole lot of guitar playing going on in the Sahara.

This album was released in 2012 as a charity fund raiser for NGOs assisting the displaced Tuareg people whose natural homeland straddles Algeria, Mali and Niger. It also serves as a handy sampler for those who wish to explore the so-called “Desert Blues” genre.

The opening track is by Tinariwen, the best known of the guitar-based Tuareg bands. It’s previously unreleased, like all the tracks on this album, and they get close to psychedelia with spacey guitar effects and even some backwards recording. The treatment is unusual, but the heartbeat of the song is reassuringly Tinariwenesque.

The language of the Tuareg people is Tamashek. The literal translation of the Tamashek word for the genre of music of which Tinariwen are the best known (in the West) exponents is “Guitar”. And the guitar is very much the point of most of the tracks on this disc. Tamikrest are second up and like so many of these “Guitar” acts they tap into something old and into something far older. I heard that gritty, ringing and (I’ll say it) electric guitar sound and I thought “Rock ‘n Roll once sounded like this.” Then later in the song the percussion and the vocals fall away and the drone (a not uncommon device in “Guitar”) underlying the guitar riff becomes more apparent and I thought “Rock ‘n Roll never sounded like this.” For all most of these players grew up listening to Hendrix, Knopfler and Vaughan they also have one foot in a much older musical world.

The Ibrahim Djo Experience serve up a potent, slide-guitar powered track titled (unsurprisingly once you hear it) “Blues du Desert”. Amanar and Tadalat similarly serve up tasty guitar offerings. But for all the emphasis on guitar not many of these guys are positioning themselves as serious guitar heroes. The exception is Bombino. This CD was my introduction to his music and I was struck by the scope of his solo on the live track “Tigrawahi Tikma” that he offers here. I was listening to the CD in my car and he started soloing as I hit the freeway in Sandton. Round about Wits University two things struck me: The solo was still going on (the track is just over thirteen minutes) and I wasn’t getting irritated or bored by it. It’s a terrific piece of playing with great impetus and dynamics.

The closing track is the odd man out here. The band is Tartit, and the track, like most here, has one foot in the now and one in the way-back-when, but the “now” is trancey ambience, and the primitive aspect sounds more like a tribal dance around a fire. It’s perhaps the one false note here as the piece doesn’t develop much. That said it’s quite possible that I’m an old fart who doesn’t understand trance and club music and it may be a very different proposition in the right space (and head space). It does strike me as the sort of thing that might get more interesting if it goes on long enough – here it gets faded around the five minute mark. Too long or not long enough?

If you are curious about the rock music that has bloomed in the unlikely environment of the Sahara, of if you’ve head the better known Tinariwen or Bombino and want to explore further then this disc will serve you well.

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