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.