Certain careers arc while others are rather like cliffs. Arcing usually results in a few lauded albums followed by a slow and painful descent, inevitably collapsing with matinee performances at local VFWs or, if lucky, a dedicated slot in the Vegas circuit. Cliff drops are predominantly reserved for artists who receive millions of dollars in marketing pushes while teenagers; a generation later they're signing up for whatever network will produce a reality show based on the drug habit they have yet to kick, or how many women will trade a date with a bandana-wearing has-been for an opportunity to smile pretty for the camera. Slow and steady is the golden rule, says the tortoise, in which case your career is due to passion and not gimmick, avoiding the trappings of too much too soon.
It would be hard to turn Malian desert blues into a glitzy stratagem, though I'm sure with the genre's growing popularity some will try. Tinariwen does not partake in such foolishness. This band's name will forever be associated with Tuareg music, being the first to break through to international audiences a decade ago with an intriguing blend of African blues and percussion. Featuring '70s era electric guitars and lyrics and chants sung in Tamashek, Tinariwen plays trance music: the subtle, pervasive percussion creates a circular hypnotism that the melodies and guitar riffs embrace.
While much has been made about the band's nomadic roots -- members really do live in the desert, and don't just rush there for photo ops -- so far they've only recorded in studios in Bamako and France. While the music may have been written amidst the sand and sun that the members know intimately, it was not until Tassili (Anti-) that Tinariwen recorded in its native environment. Setting up camp and powering off generators for three weeks, this softer, more acoustic offering is perhaps the closest thing you can achieve to being among the musicians without pond-jumping to Africa.
During the band's last American tour, I had the fortunate opportunity to sit backstage with two members. Both strummed guitars, one sang; this trio in the darkened green room felt nothing of the chaos of the 700 people they were about to greet. For 20 minutes everything outside of that dimly lit concrete cave ceased to matter. As incredible as the concert was, nothing will erase that impromptu offering from my mind, and nothing has come as close to capturing the intimacy of that moment, until Tassili.
Recording in the town of Djanet in Southeastern Algeria, bordering Libya -- they could not perform in Mali due to recently renewed fighting, something that helped to form this band over three decades ago -- TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe contribute on five tracks, including the excellent single, "Tenere Taqqim Tossam." Sipping mint tea and counting on starlight for inspiration, the Brooklynites seem comfortably situated in this beautiful surrounding. Others kicked in overdubs from their prospective studios, including a unique brass section on "Ya Messingah" by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, while Wilco's Nels Cline strums gorgeously on "Imidiwan Ma Tennam."
Tinariwen's fame is growing daily, with the band counting Thom Yorke, Bono, Robert Plant and Carlos Santana as fans. The Red Hot Chili Peppers recently released a tour video using a Tinariwen song. Yet perhaps the most interesting place that they've showed up is on the India-born, Toronto-bred singer Kiran Ahluwalia's fifth album, Aam Zameen: Common Ground (Avokado). Pollinating ghazal and Punjabi folk music with fado and fiddle, collaborating with Guelphian electronic artist Eccodek and the eclectic throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Ahluwalia has long sought to merge her ancestral sound with global influences. Success she has had, but none as satisfying as her foray through the Saharan lowlands.
The record includes three renderings of the most famous qawwali song of all time, made globally unforgettable by the great Pakistani folk singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, "Mustt Mustt." The name alone is so ubiquitous that I remember watching a qawwali group assume the name roughly a decade ago at the Quebec City Jazz Festival, the Arabic equivalent of naming your cover band "Strange Days" or "Stairway to Heaven." That band used a tinny sounding drum machine to produce handclaps, which is perhaps the closest thing to blasphemy you'll find in Qawwali.
Yet it is the handclaps that draw an intriguing parallel between Qawwali and Tuareg music, and it was the 'instrument' that molded these two sounds together. Credit equally Justin Adams, a phenomenal British guitar player who has produced two records by Tinariwen, as well as worked alongside Robert Plant and Gambian ritti (one-stringed fiddle) player Juldeh Camara. The ritti appears on Aam Zameen, as does plenty of searing guitar work, by both Adams and co-producer Rez Abassi, an exceptional jazz six-stringer doubling as Ahluwalia's husband.
The most unique addition to Ahluwalia's catalog, however, is the Balkan brass that blares underneath the album's most upbeat track, "Raqba." This addition highlights an important and little discussed cultural connection between India and Eastern Europe dating back centuries to army bands and sonically charged skirmishes. War is certainly hell, yet it is due to such occupations and entrapments that music spread and grew, which is in part how brass instrumentation journeyed and returned to India in many directions. Fortunately today more peaceful means of sharing and communicating exist, the "common ground" in Ahluwalia's album title.
A female singing Qawwali itself is a recent innovation, still not entirely acceptable in this overwhelmingly male occupation -- the Wall Street of boy's clubs, without any of the money but holding all of the devotion. The great Abida Parveen was considered both evolutionary and heretical for sliding the sound into her repertoire, while Shabaz vocalist Riffat Sultana borrowed from Qawwali to sing Sufi verses above hip-hop and electronic beats. Add Kiran Ahluwalia to that amazing list; not straight Qawwali, true, but in order to revolutionize a style, you have to exceed its boundaries. On musical merit along, Aam Zameen deserves to be recognized in two months as one of 2011's best records. With all the added cultural content swirling within the boundaries of these 57 minutes, this truly breakthrough album will have you peeling back layers every time you listen, an experience you will never tire from.