Tinariwen - The UC Theatre 1st Anniversary Show
2036 University Avenue
near Downtown Berkeley BART
Berkeley, CA, 94704
Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM
The new album by Tinariwen could well have been called Exile on Main Street. But other people have already thought of that. It also could have been called A la recherché du pays perdu (‘Remembrance of a lost country’). Except that would have been a tad Proustian for musicians who grew up pretty much between a rock and a sand dune, in the midst of their goat herds and camel caravans. But the idea is apt. As is the painful paradox, if you consider that while Tinariwen were busy criss-crossing the globe on their recent triumphant tours (160 concerts played in the past three years), expanding their audience on all five continents, becoming one of the latest musical phenomena of truly universal calibre, the frontiers that encircle their desert home were closing down and double-locking, forcing them into exile to record this their 8th album.
Over the past five years, their beloved homeland in the Adrar des Ifoghas, a Saharan mountain range that straddles the border between north-eastern Mali and southern Algeria has, in effect, been transformed into a conflict zone, a place where nobody can venture without putting themselves in danger and where war lords devoted either to jihad or trafficking (sometimes both at the same time), have put any activity that contradicts their beliefs or escapes their control in jeopardy. Even though the 12 songs on this new record evoke those cherished deserts of home, they were recorded a long way away from them. And, as a result of this separation, at a time when the political, military and humanitarian situation in the region has never been so critical, the feelings and the emotions that the band managed to capture on record have never been so vivid.
In October 2014, making use of a few days off in the middle of a long American tour, the band stopped off at Rancho de la Luna studios in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. The place has become the favoured refuge of the stoner rock tribe. Josh Homme and his Queens of the Stone Age were the first to make it their hive, and since then, whether in use by P J Harvey or the Foo Fighters, Iggy Pop or the Arctic Monkeys, neither the mixing console nor the kitchen ovens have had a moment to cool down. For Tinariwen, the geographical location of the studios – lost in the middle of that horizontal desert, that mineral immensity, where Man is reminded of his own insignificance in ways that can only, in the end, either kill him or sublimate him – proved to be particularly propitious in terms of creativity.
And the human climate was just as favourable. As session followed session, musicians who know the place well dropped by to add their own touch to that pre-industrial boogie which comes from a world where only the essential and metaphysical passions of space and time have any meaning. Such was the case of Matt Sweeny, guitarist of fine pedigree (Johnny Cash, Bonnie Prince Billy and Cat Power) and an avowed fan of the band. Kurt Vile, ex-member of the duo War On Drugs, now spearheading a noisy indi-folk combo, also took part in the debate. As did Alan Johannes, multi-instrumentalist, sound engineer and producer of the first few albums by Queens of the Stone Age, a band with whom Mark Lanegan, the other guest on the album, has also been a singer. From their angle, one might have expected all these contributions to result in something pretty heavy, with those American guitars coming into to reinforce the ishumar (name of the musical style of which Tinariwen precursors) guitars of Ibrahim, Abdallah Hassan and Elaga. In effect, lovers of those sensual yet abrasive riffs that are the band’s signature won’t be disappointed. But neither will those who love the funky, danceable side of Tinariwen, which comes through loud and clear courtesy of bassist Eyadou and percussionist Sarid, a veritable rhythm machine in the mould of Sly and Robbie. All that potential has been wonderfully honed by the album’s mixing engineer Andrew Schepps, who has previously worked with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Johny Cash, and Jay Z.
That happy encounter between Tamasheks and rockers was already in evidence back in 2011, with the involvement of Wilco and TV On The Radio on the album Tassili, which was recorded in the depths of the Sahara. It was as if those musicians, coming from their world of high tech, leisure and entertainment, sought to reinvigorate the way they do things by working with artists who have been forced by necessity to reduce everything to its essence, and who bear a different destiny. In that sense, Ibrahim and his tribe restore meaning to an activity which has been partially drained all existential significance. In a cultural environment that has been overtaken by the petty and the superficial, the members of Tinariwen fascinate because they incarnate a salutary break and come across as the ultimate heroes in the midst of an army of fleshless puppets.
Having said that, in M’Hamid El Ghizlane they’re heroes for real, so much so that the youth of the area know how to sing their songs in the same way that people in other parts of the world know how to sing the Stones or Led Zep . It was there, in that oasis in southern Morocco, close by the Algerian frontier, that the band set up their tents for three weeks in March 2016 to record this 8th album, accompanied now and then by the local musical youth in question, or by a local Ganga outfit (a group of Berber ‘gnawa’ trance musicians). The album is called Elwan (‘The Elephants’), not Exile On Main Street, though it fits nicely into that ‘road record’ category nonetheless.
There are road records just like there are road movies. In American cinema, a road movie always unfolds the same way. Characters travel from one place to another in search of some truth, of a future might offer them some kind of revelation. But they always end up reconnecting with their own past, their origins. Of course, it’s an impossible return, because that past, those founding origins have been irrevocably erased. It’s the same for this record, so musically powerful and yet poignant in human terms: every song evokes a land that can no longer be found, a lost world, with all that this implies in terms of emotional range, from nostalgia for a joyous past to the tragic recent loss of a territory, and of the dream that it nourished. The emotional ‘bite’ of that loss imbues some of the songs by Ibrahim, such as Imidiwan n-akal-in (Friends from my country), Hayati (My life) or Ténéré Takhal (What’s Happened to the Desert). It’s in that last song that the famous elephants of the album title make their appearance, an animal metaphor to describe those ‘beasts’, whether militias or multinational consortiums, who have trampled everything in their path: kindness, respect, solidarity, ancestral traditions and the values essential to life in the desert, where both the human and ecological equilibriums are extremely fragile.
But the songs written by Abdallah, such as Sastanaqqam (I Question You), or those penned by Hassan, the deeply disturbing Ittus (Our Goal), also evoke a similar sense of helplessness and disempowerment. The same goes for Nannuflay (Fulfilled), written by Eyadou, one of the ‘kids’ in the band; it’s a song echoes that sense of absolute crisis. Having said that, between the weariness of the old fighters of the Touareg rebellion of the 1990s (Ibrahim, Hassan, Abdallah) and the dynamism of a youth that’s still emerging (Eyadou, Elaga, Sarid, Sadam), you get a wonderfully symbiotic mix. The meeting of two such disparate generations in one band is relatively rare in today’s musical world. In Tinariwen, it’s a meeting that celebrates, even more powerfully might otherwise be the case, the capacity of music to make experiences as intense and cruel as exile beautiful and, in some ways, even attractive, experiences that would surely end up destroying those who lived them, if this form of aesthetic relief didn’t exist.
Translated by Andy Morgan
Plunging headlong into their second decade as a band, Dengue Fever's new album, The Deepest Lake, their fifth full-length of all-new material, comes at a critical juncture in the bands career. In 2013, after forming their own label Tuk Tuk Records, the band crossed over into a brave new world as both artist and record label owner's. Today find themselves able to wear two hats – as creative musicians with no boundaries as well as label owners who make their own decisions on where, when and how to fabricate their career.
The net result is the aforementioned, The Deepest Lake, a record with more musical diversions than the Mekong River itself. Released in January 27, 2015 – US/Canada & February 2, 2015 in the rest of the world, the ten tracks on The Deepest Lake will satiate longtime fans as well as newcomers looking for something altogether different. Widely recognized for their trademark blend of 60's Cambodian pop and psychedelic rock, Dengue Fever's latest release expands their musical palette to include Khmer rap, Latin grooves, Afro percussion, layered Stax-like horns and more.
From the keyboard and percussion heavy opening track, "Tokay", lead singer Chhom Nimol's unmistakable bird-like Khmer vocals lead the band on a evolutionary musical journey on The Deepest Lake. Be it the John Doe & Exene boy/girl vocals on "Rom Say Sok" that gets your indie grooves on or the six plus minute psychedelic jam on "Cardboard Castles", it's pretty evident that this is a band looking to take chances and not play it safe. By following their instincts on this record and letting many of the final tracks come out of extended jams when demo'ing the album, the band played to their musical strengths. No longer was there a need to 'find' a song, the songs on The Deepest Lake came to them.
The band's newly established independence as both label owner and artist marks yet another chapter in the continual evolution of a group unlike many other bands in the Los Angeles music scene. It all began in 2002 when Dengue Fever formed and released their eponymous debut (2003). Packed chock full of 'lost' Khmer covers, the band paid homage to Khmer rock, a hybrid of Vietnam War era surf, psych and classic rock performed by Cambodian giants like Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron and Sinn Sisamouth.
The bands sophomore release, critically acclaimed sophomore follow-up, Escape from Dragon House (2005) found them writing and performing original material in earnest. Amazon.com named Dragon House the #1 international release for 2005, and Mojo magazine named it in their Top 10 World Music releases of 2006.
In 2008, their third release Venus on Earth became the band's best selling album. It garnered praise from both critics and fans the world over. In fact, Venus on Earth found support from iconic musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Metallica's Kirk Hammett and Ray Davies who each made mention of the band in the press.
DENGUE FEVER's fourth release, Cannibal Courtship (Fantasy Records/Concord Music Group), was released in April 2011 and found the band expanding beyond their usual comfort zone and experimenting with new sounds.
The roots of the band began in the late 1990's with a 6-month trek through Southeast Asia by Keyboardist Ethan Holtzman. Returning to Los Angeles with a suitcase crammed full of Cambodian cassette tapes, Holtzman and his brother Zac, who had discovered the same music while working at a record store in San Francisco, reunited. The brothers soon bonded over their love of vintage Cambodian rock and in 2002 founded the band with saxophonist, David Ralicke (Beck/Brazzaville); drummer, Paul Dreux Smith; and bassist, Senon Williams (Radar Brothers). Shortly thereafter the members were on hot pursuit for the ideal Cambodian chanteuse to complete their outfit. After a short period of musical courtship that began at a Cambodian nightclub in Long Beach, Ca., Nimol joined the band when she realized the band shared a genuine passion for the music and culture of her homeland.
It's that cross pollination of Khmer rock, garage rock, psychedelic rock and the British Invasion sound that has pushed the band to heights they could only dream of in 2002. DENGUE FEVER as performed in front of thousands of fans at such noted music festivals as WOMAD (UK, AUS, NZ), WOMEX (Spain), Melbourne Festival (AUS), Glastonbury (UK), Bumerbshoot, (USA), Transmusicales (France), Roskilde (Denmark), Electric Picnic (Ireland), Peace and Love (Sweden), Treasure Island (USA) among many others. Their songs have appeared in films such as City of Ghosts, Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, The Hangover 2, the Showtime series Weeds, the HBO's hit series True Blood (who named an entire episode after one of their songs) and featured the band's music, CBS' series CSI: Las Vegas and numerous independent documentaries.
With band profiles in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Mojo, Uncut, Magnet, Wired, NPR's "Fresh Air", Radio Australia, KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" and "World Café Live", the time is truly ripe for at least another decade of breaking down more musical barriers. The Deepest Lake is the first, glorious musical step in that new direction.