To hear music this intense from those batting back against vast structures of oppression is nothing short of energizing.
We are currently experiencing a boom period for Tuareg rock, with reliable contributions from elder statesmen like Tinariwen supplemented by emerging, evolutionary talents like Mdou Moctar. Near the top of this new generation is Kel Assouf, a band whose incendiary blues rock is flecked with washes of psychedelia and hard rock. Black Tenere consolidates the group into a trio of guitarist/vocalist Anana Harouna, keyboardist Sofyann Ben Youssef and drummer Oliver Peru, and the pared-down lineup results in a honed sense of focus. Earlier releases leaped around genres to show off the range of the band’s influences, but here they bring those strands into a unified whole, making for their sharpest statement yet.
Sonically, the record roars out of the gate and never loses its energy. “Fransa” marries a hypnotic riff to handclaps and nervy electronic pulses to generate a feeling of unease and tension that spills out into the glam rock stomp of “Tenere,” with Harouna’s sinewy guitar distorted with bright pop distortion as Youssef adds fills of keyboard and Peru pounds his snare drums with manic glee. Harouna’s considerable skill as a guitarist comes to the fore on showcases like “America,” in which he blends the sun-bleached, trebly whine of desert rock with a noodling complexity redolent of Frank Zappa. The fleet-fingered style of desert blues has always lent itself to arpeggiated solos accessible to western guitar freaks, but Harouna, like Zappa, shows a compositional purpose to his playing, never getting lost in shredding but rather layering, in this case, swells of emotion into even his most blatant showcases.
For all the concision of the band’s sound, they still find ways to stretch their ever-shifting boundaries. “Alyochan” sounds like the kind of electronica that has made its way into compilations like Music from Saharan Cellphones, riding a droning electronic beat with heavily syncopated percussion that opens up into a digital version of desert rock, with sidewinding synths scaling dunes as Peru’s drumming gets even tighter to roll into a funky march. Then in the very next track, “Tamatant,” the group falls back into an elegant, gliding piece in which Harouna’s guitar floats on an upswell of complementary synthesizer gusts. Youssef’s production leaves ample negative space around the track, letting each chord ring out to the vanishing point and placing a pocket of air around Harouna’s gentle vocals that maximizes their wistful beauty.
Lyrically, though, “Tamatant” is fiercely political, a trait that defines the album. Singing in the Tamashek language, Harouna often sounds elegant and transportive, but the songs on Black Tenere lambaste colonialism and praise freedom fighters. “Tamatant” is a call to resistance, as is “Fransa,” whose lyrics call out for Kel Tamashek self-sufficiency in their struggles for independence with such lines as “The war during the French colonization was won by the swords, shields and spears of our ancestors/ How do you want potential allies to provide you with modern cannons and missiles?” “America,” naturally, castigates the U.S. for its endless shadow wars in the name of postcolonial business interests, threading the history of forces at work on Africa from the European age of exploration to current interventionism. By the same token, the band does take time to reflect on the meaning of the homeland they seek to gain; “Taddout,” the album’s most serene, lilting track, is a poetic rumination in which Harouna describes the mental images he carries with him of home. The details are hyper-specific, almost more of a conversation than a song with lines like “I follow the traces of antelopes/ I live in the desert and its storms/ My favorite flower is that of acacia. It’s called Tabsit.”
Black Tenere is nothing less than a showcase for the malleability of desert rock as it gains increasing traction in global visibility. To listen to the loping, slinking rhythm of “Amghar” or the metallic swagger of “Ubary” is to hear a band capable of moving venue floors with their alternately slamming and danceable music. At its heart, though, the record is a reminder of how bracingly strident and political music can remain without losing its propulsive intensity. As western pop increasingly trends toward weak, commercialized statements of empowerment over genuine engagement, to hear music this intense from those batting back against vast structures of oppression is nothing short of energizing.