“Tamotaït means hope for a positive change,” says Ousmane Ag Mossa, the singer, guitarist and songwriter for the Tuareg (or Kel Tamasheq as they prefer) rockers Tamikrest. They, like their fellow makers of what’s come to be called “desert blues” out of Northern Mali, see their music and their lives as part of the struggle for a homeland. That homeland – called Azawad – was briefly a reality in 2012, but the region has been engulfed in toxic conflict ever since, most of its artists and musicians living in exile in Paris, Algeria and elsewhere.
Tamotaït is their fifth studio album, and that desert spirit burns and rocks in every note, every beat, every silence. With rock band instrumentation that’s common the world over – a couple of electric guitars, bass and percussion – they sonically evoke the shimmering heat, lonely vistas and rolling dunes of their particular environment, while lyrically they evoke their people’s determination to live their own lives within that environment.
The glorious high point is the eigth and penultimate track “Anha Achal Wad Namda.” Like several other songs on this album, it begins quietly, the brilliant guitar of Ag Mossa and the shimmering bluesly slide of Paul Salvagnac slowly easing into existence like a distant caravan through heat waves rising off the Saharan dunes. The singer then intones in the Tamasheq tongue the first line or two, “We all live today, not tomorrow that’s for sure / since life is going away / an absolute truth, which we deny,” and about then the thunderous rhythm section explodes in glorious release. That would be percussionist and singer Aghaly Ag Mohamedine, bassist Cheikh Ag Tiglia, and drummer Nicolas Grupp. This song kicks ass.
That quiet-building-to-loud approach appears on some other songs, as I mentioned. Including the dazzling opener “Awnafin,” which features the rolling rhythm that’s one of the main components of this genre. What’s not as typical are the sweet surf-guitar riffs Salvagnac tosses off in the instrumental break. The inspiring lyrics are about “My dearest wish … ” which is “to see that day … when my people will be united.”
That sentiment is the theme throughout the album. I might find “Anha Achal Wad Namda” the most arresting track, but the group sees “Amzagh” and “As Sastnan Hidjan” as the two that are pivotal to understanding the album’s themes. Interestingly, both are quiet, slow-paced affairs. The former’s cyclical lyrics revolve around the line “The world of today and tomorrow where only one sun appears.” The even slower and more melancholy-sounding “As Sastnan Hidjan” actually bursts with revolutionary sentiments in its lyrics, and features a spoken-word interlude toward the end, during which the intensity with which the band is playing is ratcheted up a few notches.
Every track is notable in some way. “Amidinin Tad Adouniya” has an arrangement that calls to mind the first album that brought Malian music to the attention of Europe and America. The paired sounds of the fingerpicked electric and bluesy slide remind me, anyway, of Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder’s Talking Timbuktu. Which is a good thing. The beautifully melodic “Timtarin” finds the band’s singers swapping verses with dulcet-toned Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra. And while on tour in Japan they recorded the final track “Tabsit” with traditional Japanese musicians Atsushi Sakta and Oki Kano, whose shamisen and tonkori weave around Tamikrest’s guitars on this gentle tune. (This one and a couple of others have some uncredited keyboards – droning organ, basically, which heightens the atmospherics.)
The album was recorded in rural France, at the studio of David Odlum, who has formerly mixed their work but this time produced, and did a great job. Everything about Tamotaït – lyrics, arrangement, production, and my god the playing – is sophisticated and highly artful, without ever losing its rootsy appeal.