Tinariwen’s “Tassili” And The Columbian Exchange

Next week, Tinariwen, North Africa’s greatest blues band, will release its exquisite new album, Tassili, which we have been fortunate to listen to thanks to the NPR iPad app.  The timing couldn’t be better.  You may think this is a reference to the true story that, in its earliest incarnation, Tinariwen was actually supported by Muammar Gaddafi (they sang camp songs for rebel forces that, in this case, the Colonel financed.)  It’s not.  The reference instead is to the publication last week of Charles C. Mann’s pretty incredible follow up to his bestselling book 1491, with the new one, 1493, delving deep into the Columbian Exchange, wherein seeds and spores from Africa and the Americas floated in both directions once Columbus plowed his prow into the shores of the New World.

Tinariwen play trance-like ragas that would be recognizable to Son House and Robert Johnson, long loping blues lines on multiple guitars.  The choruses (at least on previous albums) tend to be sung by village elders leading ululating women and young ‘uns as they dance around the campfire.  Actually, on the new album, the choruses sound like they’re being sung by fighters waiting to rush into Tripoli and liberate a desert country from its oppressive dictator… The point is that Tinariwen sounds like a band perched on top of a dune in the Sahara, capturing whatever music the wind carries in — from the Mississippi Delta, from India, from sub-Saharan Africa — and the result is a cross cultural revelation, gorgeous songs that synthesize a global rhythm.  It is the musical equivalent of carrying tomatoes back from the New World to Italy, of bringing sugarcane to Jamaica.  With the Columbian Exchange — the biological cross currents suturing Gondwanaland back together, at least from an ecological standpoint — the world became one again.  And so it seems when you listen to Tinariwen, and wonder how a guitar band from North Africa can sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan pickin’ tunes around the picnic table in the Texas Hill Country.

On the brilliant Tassili, Nels Cline of Wilco joins to raise a background squall on the very first song — a scirocco created by an American rocker of Danish extraction playing with his Tuareg blues brothers.  Members of TV On The Radio sing in universal harmony.  New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band amazingly mix their horns in with licks from their North African cousins.  Who, truly, could rail against globalism when this is the result?

One Response to “Tinariwen’s “Tassili” And The Columbian Exchange”

  1. […] the Delta Blues with musicians from Wilco, TV On The Radio, and the Dirty Dozen Blues Band.  We compared it to the Columbian Exchange, the cross fertilization between worlds old and new, seeds and spores […]

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