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Tassili Richie Troughton , September 15th, 2011 06:33

"Tassili n'Ajjer" translates from Tinariwen's native Tamazight to "Plateau of the Rivers", a mountain range in the Sahara desert in southeast Algeria, North Africa. And references to home and what fate awaits the Touareg people are recurring themes on Tassili. On their fifth album the Sahara's best-known rebel rockers have stepped off the distortion pedals and gone back to their acoustic roots with songs composed by the fire in desert camps. Tinariwen have always been concerned with addressing the issues affecting the Touareg people, and ongoing restlessness in North Africa provides plenty of inspiration for these well-traveled musicians. There's the political unrest in their native Mali and this year's Arab Spring uprisings in regions familiar to the Touareg, including Libya, where Tinariwen members had previously been enlisted by Colonel Gaddafi.

Though the desert blues heavyweights formed in 1979, it is in the last 10 years that they have made their names as global superstars of Touareg music and have spread their message far wider than the desert environs and temporary camps in which they carry out their nomadic existence. Tinariwen's guitar-driven electrified "assouf" music is acknowledged, not just in the music of Saharan newcomers Tamikrest, but also increasingly in the West, with the likes of Earth citing them as a major influence on their last record. Tassili features collaborations with several more admirers, including Wilco's Nels Cline, and members of TV On The Radio.

On opening track 'Imidiwan Ma Tenam' (What Have You Got To Say My Friends) the band are joined by Cline on guitars. His usually distinct style is employed in a limited, yet effective, looped drone alongside Tinariwen's familiar repetitive and seductive rhythmic flow. Although unusual within this music ("like a UFO landing in the desert" is how Cline described it) it does not sound out of place, spinning out, dizzying and blisteringly bright as frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib sings: "You've left this desert where you say you were born, You've gone and abandoned it, We live in ignorance and it holds all the power." The theme continues on, 'Tenere Taqhim Tossam' (Jealous Desert) featuring Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV On The Radio, the New Yorkers contributing guitar and English vocals. Tinariwen's travels have now gone far beyond the desert, and they are concerned that their desert home is "jealous", reflecting the sacred joining together between the people and their environment. With a back to basics recording process the group has stripped as much remaining artifice as possible from dividing the union.

Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni addresses these tumultuous times on 'Imidiwan Win Sahara' (My Friends From The Sahara), as he warns his brothers to embrace peace or disappear. "Let's unite or else we shall all vanish, Not a single soul will be left in the desert," he sings over repetitive unfolding grooves. Elsewhere Ag Alhabib sings: "Truth itself is hard, unconquerable, he who hears it can turn into a rebel" on 'Ya Messingah' (Oh Lord), which features deep hovering drones of sax bass from members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, eventually breaking out into free jazz wailing. And the loneliness of forever wandering the desert is reflected in ode to solitude, 'Assuf Dalwa' (Longing And Loneliness), as Alhabib sings: "The smoke speaks to me, And my thoughts tell me tales".

Tinariwen's Tassili may not have the distorted guitars of previous records, but the acoustic recordings suit the contemplative mood and makes for a powerful return to their roots, as the musicians' circumstances, like getting lost in the desert, go in circles. These are protest songs written by people who have everything at stake in an uncertain world, as the result of ongoing conflicts could threaten the very existence of the restless Touareg people. In times like these Tinariwen's message is as relevant as ever.