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V/A - Songs For Desert Refugees

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Artist: V/A

Album: Songs For Desert Refugees

Label: Reaktion

Review date: Nov. 7, 2012

A few days before Halloween, the Tuareg ensemble Tinariwen came through Chicago, something they do with gratifying frequency. Not for the first time, the group’s leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabiib was not with them; he has, due to either ill health or some episode of unrest in the Sahel, sat out several other tours. Usually when he is gone, the group adopts an antic “dad’s away, let’s play” demeanor, but this time they played with a subdued, slow-burning seriousness. Maybe they were just husbanding their energy since it was the end of the tour and they had two sets to play that night. But I had to wonder if their minds weren’t on what’s happening back home. Al Qaeda’s on the move throughout the Sahel; there’s conflict in Niger; civil war and rebellion have split Mali in two; and Ansar Dine, an Islamist organization run by Iyad Ag Ghaly — one of Tinariwen’s old buddies from the days when the band’s members fought for Tuareg self-determination in Libyan-funded military units — is trying to ban music in the part of Mali currently known as Azawad.

The refugee camps that have been a fact of Tuareg life for decades are swelling with new residents, and people need help; that’s where this benefit record comes in. Twelve Tuareg performers contributed songs to the record, which is intended to support the non-governmental organizations Tamoudré and Etar that work in support of the physical and cultural survival of Tuaregs in northern Mali and southern Algeria. As is often the case with such projects, you get some leftovers, but since the contributors are by and large pushing to get heard in the first place, it doesn’t sound second rate. Most of the music that has been previously released comes from download-only albums, so Songs For Desert Refugees feels more like the result of cherry-picking than back-shelf clearing. Tinariwen’s “Amous Idraout Assouf d’Alwa” is an outtake from Aman Iman, one of their strongest efforts; one suspects it was cut not because the song was weak, but because they just had too many of them. Its tough groove, bluesy guitar tendrils, and stern singing set the template for much of what will follow. Terrakaft includes ex-members of Tinariwen; Tamikrest’s players are much younger, but they grew up playing this stuff. None of them mess with the formula. Tadalat adds rockist drums and guitar solos, but the way they sing and the relaxed pace they adopt keeps the track from sticking out too much.

There are stretches of this record that sound like the work of one band, but there’s also some variation, especially during the album’s second half. Amanar, a young combo that you might already have heard on Sahel Sounds’ Ishilan N-Tenere and Music From Saharan Cell Phones collections, has a rawer, acoustic sound; Toumast picks up the pace with a disco groove that could fit on an old Steve Winwood record; and the sole distaff ensemble Tartit skips guitars all together in favor of a drums ‘n’ chants piece that ends the album on a strong, hypnotic note. The penultimate track by Group Bombino is also the longest. Bombino gives full reign to the mellifluous guitar licks that he kept on a short leash on his album Agadez. You could buy this record to help the cause, or you could buy it to sample the sounds of Sahel Rock. Either way, you won’t go wrong.

By Bill Meyer

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