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Amadjar Review

by Timothy Monger

Reconnecting with the nomadic nature of their Tuareg heritage, desert blues collective Tinariwen roll out their field-recorded eighth album, Amadjar. A tumultuous history of exile and an improbable rise to international fame are the long-tenured Malian band's most consistent narratives as they continue to attract devotees from the Western world while remaining politically unwelcome in their own country. In October 2018, after the touring cycle for their previous album, Elwan, found them wrapping up at a nomadic culture festival in the Moroccan Sahara, the group set out on a road trip down the northwestern portion of Africa. Their ultimate destination was Nouakchott, the coastal capital of Mauritania, but as the trip unfolded, they began writing and recording parts of new songs in open-air sessions around their various nightly camps. By the time they reached Mauritania, an album had begun to take shape, and with their French production team operating out of a rickety makeshift campervan studio outside of Nouakchott, Tinariwen's last 20 years of globetrotting and guesting in unfamiliar Western studios were all but forgotten as they meshed themselves with their native habitat, singing and playing without headphones or effects under the stars. Amadjar, which translates to "The Foreign Traveler," is the result of both these outdoor sessions and subsequent studio augmentation by a handful of Western guests including Micah Nelson, Cass McCombs, Stephen O'Malley, and Warren Ellis.

As might be expected, the overall feel is looser than on many of their previous studio albums and several cuts devolve into candid snippets of campfire inspiration, abstract noodling, and chatter. The skittering rhythms of "Zawal," one of several tracks to feature Tinariwen's on-site Mauritanian hosts, griot singer Noura Mint Seymali and her husband, guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly, rumbles its way to one such conclusion, its last twitching shaker segueing into what was obviously a brief part-writing session. The acoustic "Anina," with its snaking group chants, tumbles upward into the arc of its existence, its first uncertain notes rising into confident full-band crescendo then falling away into a post-song discussion between two members. Of the guests, Seymali's impassioned vocals are the most present, especially on the excellent "Amalouna" and "Takount," though Micah Nelson's mandolin and charango work adds some joyful sparkle to the upbeat "Taqkal," as does Warren Ellis' fiddle on "Mhadjar Yassouf Idjan." Given the back-to-basics, on-location concept of this recording, it's easy to wonder what the sessions might have sounded like without the help of the various rock musicians, who, in spite of their tasteful studio contributions, could be seen as somewhat redundant. That Tinariwen continue to extend invitations to outside inspirators, even on their own literal turf, is a testament to their unyielding collaborative spirit, and on this hybrid of an album, they again summon a common musical language while sounding as authentic as ever.

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