It’s hard to believe that this Malian Tuareg group, so often unfairly regarded as Tinariwen’s lesser proteges, are already on to their third album. Chatma should do much to distance Tamikrest from their more established mentors, as it is by some distance their most confident and assured album so far. It comes with a full bodied, powerful rock sound, through which it finds the common ground between Malian desert blues and blues-informed western rock (it’s particularly easy to hear strains of Led Zeppelin or Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, whilst Assikal is influenced by Pink Floyd).
That being said, Chatma never feels like any kind of compromise, and the presence of Tinariwen singer Wonou Walet Sidati adds a new dimension to the music, one that sometimes threatens to overpower Ousmane Ag Mossa’s less imposing vocal presence. The imposition of sharia law in the band’s home town has left the group in exile in Algeria, and a strident defiance and righteousness can be heard throughout this excellent album. Indeed, the album’s title means ‘sisters’, and the band have dedicated it to “the courage of the Tuareg women, who have ensured their children’s survival and the morals of their fathers and brothers”. This fascinating formulation at once seems to celebrate female strength and dignity whilst reinforcing traditional patriarchy. The resulting music seems, appropriately, to both celebrate the group’s musical lineage and point in some compelling new hybrid directions.
The changes in the band’s approach can perhaps most clearly be detected on Imahin Bas Zihoun, with its insistent, reverb-laden backbeat and riffy guitars that almost come to resemble ZZ Top or the ceaseless choogle of Credence Clearwater Revival. It’s a powerhouse track, but one that still leaves space for ululating vocal expression and joyful outbursts of percussion. In common with most of the other tracks here, it also presents the band at their most melodically forthright and memorable, with a central hook that quickly imprints itself on the mind. Driving rock drums again come to the fore on Djanegh Etoumast and its restless, unstoppable groove.
The familiar drones and pedal points of Malian blues are still very much a characteristic feature here, not least on the slinky groove of Itous. Here, Tamikrest somehow seem to fuse together blues-rock and reggae, all underpinned by a lithe, flexible bass line. There’s also a comforting familiarity to Toumast Anlet, with its typically Malian melodic lines and its inherent lightness of touch. Throughout, Ousmane Ag Mossa’s guitar lines are quietly, unassumingly inspired (and often reminiscent of Patrick Patterson from the much-sampled British nyah-rock ensemble Cymande).
Where Tamikrest most excel on Chatma, however, is when they break free from the most recognisable constraints of their chosen form. The wild and brilliant Takma draws from 12/8 rhythms familiar from other forms of West African music. The mysterious, moody Achaka Achail Aynaian Daghchilan, centred around a delicate, repeating acoustic guitar motif, is particularly potent. The occasional interjection of heavily distorted electric guitar chords creates a menacing undertow for a piece of music that feels curiously unresolved, in the best possible way. Perhaps most peculiar of all is the dreamlike Assikai, intially mesmerising and coruscating but then unexpectedly interrupted by an unusual near-spoken world interlude over an ambient soundscape. Whilst in another context this might be condemned as confused or directionless, from a band formerly so committed to a particular sound and style, it feels like a bold experiment. With Timtar, the album concludes on a similarly reflective, expressive note, suggesting that Tamikrest are fast evolving into a multi-faceted, versatile musical unit.