Listen to the sounds of the desert, of its lively spirit and to the beat of its soul through the voices and guitar of one desert blues band, Tinariwen. Formed in Algeria in 1979, Tinariwen – meaning ‘deserts’ in English – is an acclaimed nomadic Touareg band from Mali with origins and sounds rooted in the romance of the Sahara.
Of all their songs, I find myself most easily transported to the wide expanse of the desert through ‘Ténéré Taqqim Tossam’ (Jealous Desert), a jewel from their latest album, Tassili that was released in 2011. The undulating rolls of the ostinato catches our attention early on in the song, signalling adventure and a breath of fresh (and perhaps sand-encrusted) air. We feel as though we are galloping towards a new horizon that glimmers and dims into a spectrum of desert hues, and camel sightings. Featured vocalist Tunde Adebimpe chants the chorus in English; his is a dialogue between human and the land. Lively chants in the Tamasheq-Berber dialect overlay the acoustic guitar riff and handclaps; and a raw and catchy simplicity is created. What results is a memorable Tinariwen masterpiece that sings of survival and love.
In a way, the song embodies the very essence of Tinariwen’s album Tassili. Composed mainly of acoustic guitar and unamplified percussion sounds, Tassili is at once a political statement and a celebration of the natural beauties that grace the life of one who lives the nomadic Touareg lifestyle. The album takes its name from the Tassili n’Ajjer region that boasts spectacular canyons and sandstone arches along the Algerian border. It was where Tinariwen first performed as exiles in refugee camps during a time of tumult and political conflict that struck their motherland up until the early 1990s.
“We wanted to go back to our origins, to the experience of [being exiled]… Those were times when we would sit around a campfire, singing songs and passing around a guitar. Tinariwen was born in that movement, in that atmosphere, so what you hear on ‘Tassili’ is the feeling of ishumar,” said band musician Eyadou ag Leche in an interview with The New York Times.
Now, I’m no music reviewer or musician, so pardon me if you find me using inexplicable terms that cause your eyebrows to arch as I review the songs I love. This review of ‘Ténéré Taqqim Tossam’ is written in anticipation of EMMAAR, the upcoming Tinariwen album that is tipped to be released this year. Who’s excited?
I don’t believe there is an English translation of this song; so I will take it upon myself as the dutiful fan to provide an interpretation. I would like to thank my friends from the oases and the deserts of North Africa for introducing me to this spectacular band and for helping me with the translation.
English translation from the original Tamashek-Berber language:
Ténéré Taqqim Tossam (Jealous Desert)
The desert is mine,
Ténéré, my homeland,
We come to you,
When the sun descends,
Bloody trails across the skies
That that the black night sweeps away.
The desert is hot,
Its water is hard to find,
The water is the life and it is the soul.
To all my brothers I say,
The desert is jealous.
Oh Ténéré! A jealous desert,
Why can’t you see? You are a treasure,
I’ve seen the world, I love you better.
Oh Ténéré you are the treasure
Of my soul.
I ask the Creator
To unite my people.
By Vicki Choh