The Radio Tisdas Sessions

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This is the real desert blues, played by Tuareg tribesmen who live it every day, making their home on the edge of the Sahara desert in Mali. Born in Libyan refugee camps after severe drought blighted the region, it's authentic, spare, and haunting, its rhythms echoing the miles of space and the languid pace of their desert surroundings. Played mostly on guitars -- there are six guitarists in the band -- with vocals, some female backing vocals, and touches of percussion, and recorded at Radio Tisdas studios (hence the title) in Kidal, capital of the stark Iforas region, with the facility only available between 7 p.m. and midnight because those were the only hours the electricity was on. This can also be a celebration, as on "Zin Es Gourmeden," where the voices come together over heavily reverbed guitar that would have delighted Jimi Hendrix. These tribesmen might be considered primitive by Western standards, but their music is anything but. The guitar playing might not include flashy solos, but it's as deep as anything to come out of the Delta and as electrifying as Chicago -- just hear the opening to "Afours Afours." The final cut, "Tin-Essako," recorded live at Mali's Festival of the Desert in January 2001, epitomizes their raw sound, with the guitar offering backing to the voices as well as an elaborate riff, the voices intertwining over clattering percussion. It's brief, but still glorious, a transport to another world that touches ours through its use of the blues progressions (admittedly mostly monochordal) and pentatonic scale. Familiar and yet so distant, this album opens a window on desert life.

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