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Preview: Tamikrest & Dirtmusic

By Mark Harrison

Wednesday 19th May 2010
The Borderline

If you’re into blues in any of its many forms, some of the most interesting music being made these days doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into the category of 'Blues'. Some of it is what gets called ‘World Music’, primarily because it’s not from the English-speaking or Western world, and one branch of that is what’s been dubbed ‘Desert Blues’.

Tinariwen is the band that primarily brought his kind of music to the attention of the wider world and now a seven-piece band of young men and women called Tamikrest follows in their footsteps and adds their own personal imprint to this style of music. They have a story to tell and they tell it in a distinctive and compelling way.

Their story isn’t a joyful one, though there’s nothing earnest or dismal about the music. Songwriter and lead guitarist and vocalist Ousmane Ag Mossa articulates the plight and anger of his people through a sound and a style that varies from the atmospheric but not heavy to the bouncy and danceable. This is not music purely for the aficionado; it deserves an audience way beyond those narrow bounds.

Tamikrest belong to, and represent through their music, the nomadic Touareg people who live in the Saharan Desert. The band members come from Mail, Niger and Algeria and their standpoint is that of an oppressed minority. They want the world to hear their ‘revolutionary songs’ and to be aware of their plight. Their lives have been drastically affected by both drought and war, involving Toureg men rebelling against governments. They’re protesting as musicians, not soldiers. Ousmane Ag Mossa’s songs draw attention to the Touareg’s situation, as well as celebrating the desert and highlighting what he sees as his people’s main problem – that they are being left in ignorance while the rest of the world leaves them behind.

This may make it all sound like the music may be heavy going but that is absolutely not the case. ‘Haunting’ and ‘hypnotic’ are adjectives often trotted out for this kind of music, and not without justice, but they don’t tell the full story. Above all else, this band’s music is fun, brimming with joy and enthusiasm and zest for life.

On their debut record, Adagh, the rhythms are bright and infectious and it’s every bit as danceable as any party record. High-pitched wails and hollers and whoops keep coming in and out, giving it an air of spontaneity. All manner of percussion flies out of the speakers, and there is some very prominent, insistent bass playing very much holding everything together in just the way the bass is the real story in reggae rhythm sections. Slower numbers are soulful and atmospheric, rather like folk/rock with an African/Middle East basis.

Perhaps the main distinctive feature is the guitar sound and style. Three electric guitarists combine to underpin all the music with a recognisable blues/rock character. The playing is subtle, no power chords or loud solos here, and the interplay between the three of them works extremely well. The guitar sound is warm rather than piercing, with some reverb here and there but not an overdose of that – we’re more in Ry Cooder territory here. The guitars set the tone but they don’t overwhelm.

There are clear influences of Western rock music and of course these things are handed on and handed down and picked up by successive generations as music crosses boundaries courtesy of the globalisation that started several decades ago. The result is something quite clearly ‘different’ from the music made by Western musicians but the influences on the African musicians have worked to make it extremely accessible to the Western ear, which in fairness is at least partly the aim. Close inspection would reveal that they are African, not Western rhythms, and therefore more complex to our ears and feet, but the overall effect is simpler than that and even the most non-rhythmic Westerner could make a decent effort at moving to the music.

Tamikrest are bursting with energy and with enthusiasm for their mission. In a standard-issue world, they have that precious commodity: individuality.

Tamikrest and Dirtmusic

Tamikrest’s album was produced by Chris Eckman of Dirtmusic. The two bands met at the Festival of the Desert in 2008 and immediately found a lot of common ground musically. Dirtmusic are a three-piece, two Americans and an Australian, with long and varied musical histories. They formed the band a few years ago and then had their whole direction re-set by that meeting with Tamikrest in the desert. The upshot was their album BKO, recorded in Mali at the same time as the Tamikrest album was recorded.

Members of Tamikrest, and other African musicians, appear throughout the Dirtmusic album, giving it a distinctive quality. Tamikrest’s music is African with a Western influence; Dirtmusic’s is the other way round. The songs, mostly written by the band members, are straight Western songs and the African elements add considerable interest to them.

A good case in point is the one cover, the Velvet Undergrounds’ 'All Tomorrow’s Parties'. What is essentially a pop song (and a good one) remains intact, but the African instrumentation gives it a whole different quality. The combination works very well across the whole album, which has considerable variety of pace, sound and plenty of light and shade. This is not a case of some Western rock band gratuitously grafting some African musicians on to give them kudos – the elements are wholly in sympathy with each other and it all sounds like a ‘proper band’. There are catchy melodies and accessible rhythms, and the whole thing is lifted by the presence of the African musicians.

These kind of ‘fusions’ often don’t work, mostly because the Westerners are running the show and enjoying themselves having ‘authentic’ Africans on board. This isn’t one of those – the way the African element blends with the songs has been well thought-out and it sounds like a genuine collaboration.

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