Silk and Sandpaper - new music from the desert

New albums from Indo-Canadian singer, Kiran Ahluwalia and Niger’s Bombino continue the west’s love affair with Tuareg music


Reviews by Doug Heselgrave


It’s been nearly three decades since music from the West African desert began to make inroads into western consciousness.  Thanks to his collaborations with artists such as Ry Cooder and Ben Harper, Mali’s Ali Farka Toure paved the way for this kind of music when he became a mainstay at folk and guitar festivals in the late eighties and nineties.  Toure’s guitar playing was often reminiscent of John Lee Hooker’s style of raw percussive blues which had the effect of making his music sound exotic and familiar at the same time.  Toure died in 2006 and in many ways he was a hard act to follow.  Defined by an open ended percussive groove, many people initially complained that all desert music sounded the same.  This is of course a fate that has greeted many types of music – from Mariachi to reggae and salsa – when they’ve been introduced to mainstream audiences, so for a few years there was a drought (forgive the pun) of new music from the African Sahara.  That changed in the early years of this century when British producer, Justin Adams went to Mali to record the Tuareg supergroup, Tinariwen.  Three albums later, after being championed by artists as diverse as Robert Plant and Billy Bragg, Tinariwen has become a critical favourite and are well on their way to becoming third world artists who command the calibre of influence previously enjoyed by Bob Marley and Fela Kuti.  In light of Tinariwen’s success, other acts from the region such as Toumanst and Terakaft have released albums in the west as a critical group of listeners who appreciate the diversity of sound offered by Tuareg music continues to grow.


Ibrahim  Ag Alhabib and Kiran Ahluwalia



Aam Zameen: Common Ground

By Kiran Ahluwalia


Kiran Ahluwalia is an award winning Indo-Canadian singer who like the Tuareg artists has one foot planted in tradition and one pointed outwards into the world at large.  A classically trained ghazal singer, Kiran like the artists in Tinariwen has never been held back by tradition.  On earlier albums, she expressed her love of Portugese Fado and acoustic folk music as well as dipping into electronica – filtered through classical Indian and Persian ghazals.  Clearly, Ahluwalia is a twenty first century woman whose creativity acknowledges no borders.  So, when she expressed a desire to explore the commonalities between classical Indian songs and Tuareg music, no one was very surprised. 


When Kiran began her career, she quickly became recognized as one of the most expressive and nuanced singers working in the ghazal tradition which gave her the opportunity to travel to festivals around the world where she had the opportunity to meet like minded artists.  Blessed with an intuitive sense of music that very few artists ever attain, on a single day at the Vancouver folk Festival a few years ago, I heard Ahluwalia wail with Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara’s gut bucket African blues duo, soar with Doug Cox and Ashwin Batish’s Slide to Freedom ensemble and get down with Eccodeck – an electronica outfit from Guelph, Ontario.  Clearly, there is very little music that she can’t get inside of, so when I heard that she had done some recording with Tinariwen, I called Kiran at home to find out how the project had turned out.


“I first met the guys from Tinariwen in Toronto at the Harbourfront festival a few years ago.  We hit it off and started to send messages back and forth.  From the beginning, we were excited about collaborating, but it took about six years to put together.  I sent Ibrahim my CD and I heard from Justin (Adams) that he liked it.  But, there are no cel phones in the desert and we had to try and get in touch with each other using short wave radios – like they use for distress calls on ships.  Eventually we were able to meet up in Paris.  While I was waiting to record, I started thinking about compositions and what we could do together.  I decided to record “Mustt Mustt” which is of course a classic song from Pakistan’s muslim culture written by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.  The song is rooted in Sufi mysticism and describes being lost in the ecstasy of divine love.  The guys from Tinariwen had never heard it, but it fits in very well with the Tuareg trance rhythms as it refers repeatedly to every breath being consumed by devotion.  It was new to them, but within minutes the bass player grabbed the rhythm and the band came in and sang the chorus.  They “just sang along – to this day I don’t think they understand the words.”


The resulting interpretation of ‘Mustt Mustt’ will surely become a world music classic as Ahluwalia’s and Tinariwen’s styles effortlessly blend, maintaining the integrity of both forms while at the same time creating something new.  It is a completely natural sounding recording that is featured in three different versions on ‘Aam Zameen.’ Recorded in Paris and Toronto, Ahluwalia knew that she was involved in something special.  “It wasn’t just a session – it was more like a lengthy affair that took many years to bring to fruition.  We laughed, hung out, played music and my mom even came to one of the sessions and we all sat around and ate the Indian food she made.  It was wonderful.”


In addition to the sessions with Tinariwen which also produced a cover of the group’s ‘Matajem’ , Ahluwalia also collaborated with Terakaft – another band from the Sahara – on the uplifting ‘Rabba Ru’ and the Tuareg ghazal fusion of ‘Ragba’ and Juldeh Camara whose two stringed ritti contributes a positively otherworldly vibe on ‘Yaar Naal’ an old Punjabi folk song.  When I asked Kiran how much of what she recorded was a conscious decision to blend cultures and how much was the product of fate or a happy accident, she laughed. “For me, it’s not a conscious decision to pick up my bags and go to the Sahara or Portugal.  I listen to music and it enters my heart and touches me.  I am a musician, and this is my work.  If something has touched me, what’s I sing and write is going to be motivated by that.  I sit and listen for months, to find music that fits into that certain place.  If the music won’t go away from my head, I start to think maybe I should do something with this.  So that’s how it happens.  When I tried to arrange Fado sessions to record, they fell through.  Then I toured Portugal and met all the right people, so it happened naturally.  You learn to trust.”


A huge amount of the credit for the sounds Kiran creates must go to Rez Abbasi, her guitarist and life partner.  A master of blending acoustic, electric and percussive sounds, Abbasi is one of the world’s most underrated guitarists.  A one man encyclopedia of string styles, it’s one of ‘Aam Zameen’s’ many musical thrills to hear Abbasi effortlessly glide between classical raga forms, progressive jazz and desert grooves on his instrument.  Whether he’s fingerpicking delicate acoustic melodies or unleashing shivering electric riffs, in every instance Abbasi finds exactly the right sounds to complement Ahluwalia’s voice and musical vision. 


Hopefully, with ‘Aam Zameen’, Kiran Ahluwalia will find the larger audience she has long deserved.






Agadez by Bombino


Bombino was born as Omara Moktar in Agadez, Niger, a crossroads of the great camel caravans that wind their way through the West African desert.  As a young boy of twelve, war forced him to flee from his home country to Algeria.  When he returned to Niger in 1997, he saw two of his fellow musicians executed – guitars are banned as a symbol of rebellion in that country – so, he fled to Burkina Faso where he was tracked down by filmmaker Ron Wyman who had heard a cassette of his songs.  It was Wyman who encouraged the thirty year old singer to record the songs on this album.  Before that took place, Bombino’s bad luck began to take a turn for the better.  When Angelina Jolie toured the region a few years ago, Bombino acted as her guide.  Bootleg tapes continued to circulate and Bombino was invited to come to New York and record with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts in 2006.


The songs on ‘Agadez’ share many commonalities with the desert music of Tinariwen, but closer listening reveals a diversity of phrasing and tone that makes Bombino’s music unique.  Passionate, driving and insistent, the songs are generally stripped down affairs featuring only Bombino’s voice and guitar with some low key percussion played on a calabash as the only additional accent.  Reminiscent of Ali Farka Toure’s approach, one can certainly hear phrases and figures from the elder guitarist’s work, but Bombino’s tone distinguishes him as an emerging artist with something to say.  Bright and cutting on the upswing, percussive on the downbeat, snatches of Jimmy Page, Jimmy Hendrix and even Jerry Garcia can be heard in the sound Bombino creates. A mixture of slow burning blues inflected jams and slinky rockers, ‘Agadez’ is a passionate, immediate album that – like ‘Aam Zameen’ deserves a large audience.  Bombino will be touring Europe and North America later this year.  He’s definitely an artist to watch. 


This posting also appears at

sign up for free updates



Views: 292

Tags: dougheselgrave, juldehcamara, justinadams, kiranahluwalia, rezabbasi, tinariwen


You need to be a member of No Depression Americana and Roots Music to add comments!

Join No Depression Americana and Roots Music


If you enjoy this site please consider helping us with a small donation!

Don't like PayPal? Mail a check to: No Depression, 460 Bush St., San Francisco, CA 94108

When you shop at Amazon please enter through this search box and No Depression receives a referral fee



Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.