In 2011, “going unplugged” tends to mean going offline, living a life unencumbered (or enhanced) by the Web, to whatever degree that’s possible, for a specified period of time. A couple decades ago, though, the term had a very different connotation: It referred to MTV Unplugged, where songs were performed with only acoustic instruments. Tassili, the fifth U.S.-issued album by Mali’s Tinariwen, a Saharan desert ensemble formed in 1982 and led by five rippling electric guitars, takes the phrase both ways. Though there was obviously recording gear involved, the area the band recorded in — “a protected region of the southeastern Algerian desert,” per the PR — seems offline enough. On top of that, Tassili is the album where the band goes acoustic.
This might seem like a marketing setup: These guys are, after all, the walking definition of “desert blues.” But the style Tinariwen plays is sometimes nicknamed simply “guitar” for a reason: All that six-string interaction has a dense weave that the group’s percussionists, Said Ag Ayad and Mohammed Ag Tahada, amplify more than push. The Malians get some outside help, too, and although “Ya Messinagh” doesn’t really need the extra oomph provided by a pair of horn players from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, it’s kind of nice to hear Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio show up in the midst of “Tenere Taqqim Tossam.” They help out on a few other songs as well, a lot more quietly. The spotlight, as ever, is on those gorgeously rough guitars.