Alhousseini Anivolla is the latest of a seemingly endless wave of “desert blues” guitarists erupting out of Mali and other states of the western Sahara, inspired perhaps by the intercontinental success of trailblazers like Tinariwen and Terakaft. Anivolla has plenty of experience and street (sand?) cred: As the guitarist and lead vocalist of Etran Finatawa, he is a prominent figure in the movement’s “second generation”, but this album marks his first attempt at a solo career.
While some of the newer faces in this movement, such as Bombino, utilize a more distinctly electric approach to writing and recording their songs, Anivolla’s approach is more acoustic in nature and utilizes a gentler, sweeter approach. Don’t be misled, however; “gentler” does not mean “weaker”, and Anivolla’s songs ripple with the same muscular energy as those of his old bandmates. His tunes may lope where the others surge, but their rolling energy is in its way irresistibly compelling.
Things get good right away on Anivolla’s debut, Anewal/The Walking Man. Opening track “Imoussanan” combines hypnotic, semi-chanted vocals with a sweet melody reflected in both the voices and the guitar picking; it all takes about six seconds to establish itself before stretching out for almost six minutes. Anivolla’s voice is sweet and gravelly at the same time, possessing that same misleading casualness present in so many singers of this style. The guitar work is fluid but never flashy, serving the underpin the song without calling attention to itself.
Follow-up tune “Kammo Tarhanin” is perhaps the best song on the record, possessing a terrific polyrhythm base and tinkling guitar line that perfectly offsets the wistful vocals of the singer. Before the listener has a chance to catch his/her breath, though, it’s off the races for a whole string of well-rendered tunes: The reflective “Imadanan Id’Madiakan”, with its growling echo chorus; the urgent “Talaouit”, propelled by spare but effective hand percussion; and “Talitin”, whose simple melody burrows into the listener’s head and can nest there for days. Trust me on this one.
At 11 tracks, there is the opportunity here for energy to slacken in the back half of the album, but this doesn’t happen. Certainly, the template has been set by midway point, and there are no unexpected shifts, but the tunes remain solid and well-played throughout.
The effective instrumental “Attarech” clocks in at nearly six minutes with a stuttering, jittery guitar line that proves as hypnotic as anything that has come before, while “Amoud” and “Tamiditin” are both gently swaying numbers that bring harmony vocals into the mix for a fuller sound and a softer overall effect.
“Iblis Ouadad” would be a standout on any number of lesser albums, but on an offering this consistent it is just one more strong song among many. That said, it should still be noted for the solid tune that it is. Bonus track “Aiytma” offers ethereal vocals courtesy of female guest singer Malebo, plus a discreet, dreamy synth line to add a dash of something unexpected. The results work well overall, though perhaps better as a bonus track than as something suggesting a new direction for the future.
Aficianados of the burgeoning desert blues scene owe it to themselves to listen to this fine record, as do fans of guitar playing, followers of trends in world music or music lovers in general. This is a terrific album that deserves a wide audience.