Political turmoil, violence, and personal tragedy are not what immediately come to mind when listening to Group Inerane. The joyful, exuberant songs on the latest in Sublime Frequencies’ Guitars from Agadez series don’t seem indicative of the circumstances in which the music was created. Listen to an upbeat tune like “Tamidit,” a perfectly suitable piece for the wedding celebrations that still serve as Inerane’s primary venue in their home country of Niger, and you’d never guess that it was recorded shortly following a coup d’état that replaced that nation’s president with a military junta. And you certainly wouldn’t think this album followed so soon after Inerane’s guitarist Adi Mohamed was shot dead during a rebel battle.
By now, the music and history of the nomadic Tuareg people of the Western Sahara are relatively well-known to “world music” aficionados and NPR listeners, thanks in large part to Tinariwen. That group serves as ambassador of the politically-born, groove-driven guitar music to most Western audiences, and as such tends to be a more well-scrubbed, professional ensemble than many of their peers back home. If you’ve heard Tinariwen, or especially if you’ve seen them live, you know how hypnotic and trance-inducing they can be. But playing in the concert halls and festival stages of Europe and America to thousands of people for years has somewhat taken the edge off their sound. Group Inerane, like Sublime Frequencies labelmates Doueh and Bombino, still sound like what they started out as and largely remain: the local party band. This is social music, intended for dancing and celebrating.
To record the album, Inerane leader and guitarist Bib Ahmed had to leave the group’s home of Agadez, because it was too dangerous for Sublime Frequencies co-founder and archivist Hisham Mayet to go there. Ahmed traveled to the Nigerian capital of Niamey, where he arranged for a pick-up rhythm section to record with him. He also enlisted the services of Koudede, an acclaimed, much-sought-after guitarist of the Tuareg style. The addition of Koudede, bassist Abdulai Sidi Mohamed, and drummer Mohamed Atchinguel has resulted in a more relaxed-sounding Inerane than the one found on Volume 1. Cleaner production also contributes to this sound; whereas Volume 1’s on-location recording contributed to its raw, psychedelic sound, the photos inside the gatefold of Volume 3 show the group within the eggshell-soundproofed confines of a studio. The high-pitched ululating and group vocal chanting are gone as well, leaving Ahmed to handle the singing with Koudede supplying occasional backup. In many ways, this is a much different group from the one heard on Volume 1, and this recording documents the transformation of a group that has been forced to change due to circumstances beyond its control. Recorded live in the studio, the music is no less energetic or immediate, and it sounds like these guys are having a great time.
There’s some debate as to what extent, if any, American blues influenced Tuareg music or if both merely share a common ancestor in West Africa. Tinariwen denies that they ever heard blues before visiting America in 2001, while Doueh has readily admitted the influence of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. Musicologists and amateur scholars love to argue about this stuff, but it’s doubtful that there’ll ever be a conclusive answer to what extent who made whom. Regardless, this music inarguably shares some source with Mississippi Hill Country blues, as most recently recorded and disseminated by the Fat Possum label. That sound is far more pronounced here than in any previous Agadez release; the crawling groove and droning guitar of “Alemin” is especially reminiscent of a Junior Kimbrough slow-burner, and even the vocal intonations are reminiscent of the late Holly Springs bluesman.
There’s no question that the ongoing political upheavals and violence in Niger’s Agadez Region has offered an extra layer of “exoticness” to the Tuareg albums for Western audiences. Virtually any article, press release, or review you read is going to mention it, and it would be foolish if not irresponsible not to. But you have to wonder: What exactly does the relationship between the music and the environment it springs from mean to the outside listener? How much does the backstory color how we hear the music? Is the music more of a gateway to learning about a region and culture most of us wouldn’t think much about otherwise? Dwell too long on the contrast between the day-to-day reality of these musicians and the fetishistic collectibility of these limited-edition LPs and things can really get strange.
Of course, how much context matters differs from listener to listener. Some people can’t enjoy music without having as much background information as possible. More casual listeners have dispensed with liner notes altogether and wouldn’t think of doing beyond the most cursory internet research. If they like something, they listen to it and don’t really care about M.I.A.’s position on the Tamil Tigers. Most people fall somewhere between these two extremes, while Sublime Frequencies loyalists definitely skew to the former grouping. But despite how much context you bring to it, if you can listen to this record without being moved — physically and emotionally — there might be something severely wrong with you. Put this record on at a social gathering, and it’s hard to imagine that people won’t start nodding their heads, tapping their feet, or unconsciously swaying to the music. This is the kind of music that can interrupt the flow of daily life, make people look up from their computer screens at coffee shops, suspend their small-talk in bars, or start dancing at an otherwise dull house party. This music is plain wonderful, life-affirming, and celebratory any way you look at it, and if you consider its origins, even more so.