On the heels of their acclaimed album Tikounen – a recording The Guardian called ‘a leap forward in the modern Tuareg sound…truly radical’ – Kel Assouf return with an even more transformative collection: Black Tenere. Produced by the band’s keyboardist Sofyann Ben Youssef, the mastermind behind the highly touted AMMAR 808, the new album strips things back to a power trio lineup and focuses on the crackling, forward-looking energy of Nigerien front man Anana Ag Haroun’s  next level Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) rock songs.

Anana exudes a steadied yet powerful charisma when he walks onto a stage. Wearing his trademark Panama hat and holding one of rock and roll’s most archetypal guitars – a Gibson Flying V – both his presence and his music personifies the interconnected paths he has travelled in the past years. Born and raised in Niger, but transplanted to Brussels eleven years ago to be with his wife and to raise a family – he acknowledges there is a duality to his world-view: “My three daughters were born in Belgium, so the country became a part of my identity. These days I’m a Belgian when I’m in Niger and a Nigerien when I’m in Belgium.”

Kel Assouf’s musical journey has flowed seamlessly from the well-spring created by Ishumar desert rock pioneers Tinariwen – that Haroun first encountered as a young musician in Niger – towards sonic horizons that include the rock classicism of groups like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Queens of the Stone Age and the club beats and astral ambiance of European electronic music. On Black Tenere, the band pushes these different textures and influences towards a persuasive, raw-edged crescendo. Ag Haroun see’s the path to the new album and its new sound this way: “my musical tastes didn’t change but they are expanding further thanks to my different encounters and my curiosity. Black Tenere is a rock album. it’s a choice to give a more original touch that builds up the identity of Kel Assouf and differentiates it from the other groups of Ishumar music. For me the music has to travel and it has to be open to other sounds so that everyone can listen to the messages it carries.”

The messages found in Ag Haroun’s lyrics are indeed potent, tragic and inspiring in their defiance. The struggle of the stateless Kel Tamashek (a name they prefer to the colonial moniker “Tuareg”) to maintain control of their ancestral lands, their dignity and their nomadic way of life, has only recently entered the fringes of Western consciousness. But as the song “Fransa” points out the story is well-worn, complex and ongoing.

This is not a band in search of a theme. Ag Haroun’s lyrical intentions on the album are clear and transparent. As he puts it, “Black Tenere talks about the Tamashek tragedy, its history since colonization until today, and the geopolitics that unfolds in the desert for its natural resources.” But infused into the sharp, unswerving social analysis and the calls for resistance, there is also the shimmer of nostalgia and a poetry of deep longing. The recognition that the very fabric of desert life is at stake and has possibly already been lost. On “Taddout” Anana sings:

Kel AssoufTo record the energized soundscapes of Black Tenere, the trio (Ag Harouna plus drummer Oliver Penu  and keyboardist/producer Sofyann Ben Youssef) setup at Stureparken Studio in Stockholm. Ben Youssef, a fast rising producer responsible for the previous Kel Assouf album and recent records by Algerian rai provocateur Sofiane Sadi and AMMAR 808 (his own project of Pan-Maghreb futurism) picks up the story:

“Stureparken is a studio owned by musicians, one of them is a friend and fellow producer. The thing that is special about the studio is that it has a huge collection of keyboards, synths, guitars, basses and drums as well. All of them are vintage instruments, with some being rarer than others. The idea was to have more choices of good or weird sounding instruments. We were trying to find some special sounds and kept experimenting around that idea.”

Ben Youssef, like Ag Haroun is also a rock fan, though his more recent projects also show a deep understanding of ambient music and club culture. Through his dual roles, as both a band member and as the producer, he deftly integrated these different sonic dimensions into the album. He describes the process this way:

“I have a been rocker since my teens. I was trying to translate the Kel Assouf trio into a sound half way between its Nigerien roots and 70 ’s rock, but also stoner rock, which is a music I played for many years. The rhythmic parts and synths show something from my electronic alter-ego AMMAR 808. I tried to tie together my disparate influences: electronic, ambient and rock. It was a natural thing to do after playing with Kel Assouf for all these years. The sound of the album is inspired from the musicians and their personalities, including myself.”

The recordings brilliantly reflect the strong collective heart of the band – each musician supporting the album’s propulsive, hypnotic purposes – yet on many occasions stepping forward in thrilling ways. “Alyochan” is unimaginable without the motorik pulse of Penu’s trance-like drumming. Ben Youssef’s Hammond organ creates a gorgeous defining space (and an unresolved tension) throughout the long intro of “Ariyal” – and then the band kicks in and things shift to another landscape. While Ag Haroun’s guitar is often wrapped in distortion, on “Tamatan” he pulls things back, and with the help of Enoesque treatments, his guitar feels star bound and weightless.

Kel Assouf is a triangle of influences, cultural expressions and complex identities. Oliver Penu, a young jazz drummer from Belgium. Sofyann Ben Youssef, a renowned electronic producer and rock fan, born and raised in Tunisia. Anana Ag Haroun, a second generation Ishumar guitarist and singer-songwriter from Niger – living in Brussels, one of Europe’s most multi-ethnic capital cities. The band is a reflection of how contemporary music works and enriches us. In an era where borders are being redrawn and walls are being erected, Kel Assouf shows us other possibilities. Ag Haroun states this beautifully: “music is a weapon of war without violence. It is a claim for justice and it is also the soul of humanity. It brings together human beings from different cultures and different languages and from different countries. If we were to invest more in culture today and less in weapons, the world would be different. Music is peace for our souls”.

Glitterbeat Records (foto: Cayo Scheyven)