Tinariwen, the Malian Touraeg group, finally broke through to Western audiences with 2007's Aman Iman and 2009's Imidiwan -- culminating in an appearance at the Glastonbury Festival -- 20 years after their inception. The increased profile did little to alter their "desert blues" with its incantatory droning -- primarily electric -- guitars, claps and organic percussion, and chanted vocals in songs about struggle and independence (some of Tinariwen's members were once rebel guerilla fighters). That sound comes out of a nation that exists between the harsh Sahara and the lush African savannah to the south, but it has less in common with other Malian musicians because the band is nomadic, never staying in one place for long. Tassili, named for the region of the Algerian desert they cut the record in, is Tinariwen's Anti label debut. It is similar, at least structurally, to its predecessors. Tinariwen play their trademark, labyrinthine music on acoustic guitars this time -- a back to basics development in itself. Conversely, they've allowed trusted producers Ian Brennan and Jean Paul Romann some liberties in letting Western musicians participate on some cuts. Opener "Imidiwan Ma Tennam" commences much as their music has in the past, with the guitars and lead vocals of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib to lead his bandmates in a snakey weave of handclaps, chants, and secondary guitars to follow his own. A little later, Nels Cline's electric guitar almost imperceptibly slithers into the mix, with a stunning but blunted array of effects; they take nothing away from the song's essence. "Ya Messinagh" begins as a single riff blues before handclaps and a second acoustic guitar answer it in what is the closest thing to a Delta blues intro that Tinariwen has recorded. Ag Alhabib's soulful earthy vocals are met at the end of the second verse by the sonorous open tones of brass and reeds by members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. What's amazing is just how seamless their interaction is. On "Walla Illa" and two other cuts, TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone add vocals and guitars; they add a textual element to other cuts while restraining themselves vocally and instrumentally so as not to intrude. These artists may or may not extend the Touareg group's reach into the West. If so, they've done so without Tinariwen compromising their sound. These songs are simply Tinariwen doing what they do best: being themselves, albeit more powerfully, not because of the collaborations, but because of the acoustic approach they've taken here; it's sound is dustier, more evocative of the desert vastness they wander.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek