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Tassili is a vast Algerian mountain range with jagged cracking canyons, sloping dunes, and deep valleys. It is known for well-preserved ancient artifacts and prehistoric art dating back to the Neolithic Period. Bordering Libya, Mali, and Niger, the region was much more likely to be featured in National Geographic than Rolling Stone until Tinariwen, the Mali-born rockers who are playing Grand Central on Nov. 10, recorded their fifth album in Djanet, an oasis city founded by the band’s nomadic Touareg ancestors in the Middle Ages.
“Tassili is a place very important for Tinariwen,” says bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, who speaks the native Tamashek language as well as French. (We interviewed Ag Leche via email with the help of a translator.) “Our story began in this part of the Sahara, and, for the last 20 years, the team hasn’t had the occasion to go back before this opportunity to do the record session.”
Tinariwen’s story is legend: The band’s founders, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Hassan Ag Touhami, and Inteyeden Ag Ablil, began making music in the late 1970s, a time of terrible drought in Southern Algeria. Drawing on a thirst for water and a hunger for political and cultural freedom, their lyrics channeled the intense suffering of the period and earned them listeners among a generation of exiled Touareg youth for whom the band’s mélange of traditional African music and contemporary Western rock sounded a note of hope in hopeless times.
In the early 1980s, Tinariwen’s founders received training in Libyan military camps as part of the late Muammar Gaddafi’s strategy to conquer territory in the region. The musicians later did an about face, joining Touareg rebellions in northern Mali and Niger.
After the rebellions ended, Tinariwen — which means “desert” in Tamashek — dedicated themselves full time to music. The band helped organize the first Festival in the Desert in 2001, began touring Europe, and ultimately released five albums, including Tassili in 2011, to the acclaim of such luminaries as Brian Eno, Robert Plant, and Thom Yorke.
Tinariwen has been playing with a rotating cast for more than 30 years. For the new record, they recruited Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio for the song “Tenere Taqhim Tossam”.
“It all happened very naturally,” says Ag Leche, referring to the collaboration. “We didn’t have a specific idea of what direction we were going to take with the recordings. It just happened. Regarding music and the poetry of life, we found ourselves like brothers to them [Malone and Adebimpe], the same, and the roots of the emotion we shared felt universal.”
Influenced by Tinariwen’s desert homecoming, Tassili is an album filled with mediations on home and the feeling of assuf, which, in Tamashek, connotes a weighty sense of homesickness and loss. Along with the sentiment, the album’s acoustic sound and beleaguered spirit suggest Tinariwen’s kinship with the tradition of American blues.
“The essential feeling seems to have a lot of similarity,” Ag Leche says. “We never actually meant to play the blues, nor did we listen to it when we discovered the guitar. We started playing guitar and took our instruments to the desert and that’s where we spontaneously started playing, naturally, without teachers.”
While most Westerners cannot understand Tinariwen’s Tamashek lyrics, the band is able to communicate sadness, triumph, and love in a way that makes the feeling of assuf palpable to listeners worldwide.
“The point of recording this session was to return to the heart of our inspiration,” Ag Leche says. “So it brought the revival of older songs and inspired the creation of new ones too. The songs mainly tell the story of the love the Tamashek still have for their land, for their desert, despite all the Western influences that also affect us.”
The West’s influence on Northern Africa is naturally on Ag Leche’s mind after the recent death of Gaddafi by local rebels during an ongoing NATO military strike.
“Gaddafi’s death will probably result in changes in our homeland,” Ag Leche says. “We are always looking for an intelligent development … We are also always afraid because of the interest for minerals and oil in our country that all the world is looking for!”
While the region is as tumultuous as ever, Tinariwen embodies the fortitude and faith of the people who live there.
“Our music represents everything we feel, everything we are,” Ag Leche says. “The lyrics come from people living in very difficult, hostile circumstance and tough environments. Living in the desert is so hard that only people with a deep love for the desert can stay there.”
Tinariwen is coming to Miami thanks to the Rhythm Foundation, which is in its 22nd season of presenting international artists in South Florida. To RSVP for the show, visit the Rhythm Foundation’s Facebook page.