Mali, Niger and Algeria Are Producing Some of the Planet's Most Vital Rock Music

Sidi Touré, BKO, Tal National and Imarhan showcase the high-octane evolution of rhythm and inter-ethnic sounds

Nigerian rock band Tal National.

Sidi Touré, Toubalbero | ★★★ 1/2
BKO, Mali Foli Coura | ★★★ 1/2
Tal National, Tantabara | ★★★★
Imarhan, Temet | ★★★

With American rock bands looking to forward-thinking EDM and elsewhere for genre rejuvenation, African electric guitars and traditional instruments alike are once again yawping, screaming and blurting with new intensity after something of a genre hiatus. Over there, the romantic scenario of picking up chops down at the crossroads has been replaced by the vigorous international and inter-ethnic cultural trading going on in Mali, Niger and Algeria. Amid African music's myriad variations, rock is once again on the rise. 

The songwriter and guitarist Sidi Touré lives in Mali's capital, Bamako, but he grew up in Gao, located between the Niger River and the Sahara Desert, a couple of hundred miles east of Timbuktu. Part of a noble Songhai lineage, Touré lived among Bozos, Bambaras, Fulanis and members of the nomadic Tuaregs of "desert blues" fame. The latter may or may not have inspired his flashy, urgent new Toubalbero, which electroshocks the acoustic folk sounds dominating his prior four albums: Djadjé Traoré adds overdriven electric guitar alongside Ourmane "Papou" Dagnon's buzzing amplified ngoni (a goat-skin-covered lute) and rocking drummer Mamadou "Mandou" Kone. Sidi Touré famously defied his family to become a sort of griot without bona fides. Now he's something even worse: a griot rocker. And distortion is the new authenticity.

Toubalbero is a Goa term for a large traditional drum that brings a community together, and Touré extends this sense of oversized communal enchantment in songs like "Heyyeya," which reflects a wedding day – "nothing but happiness, nothing but joy" – in an increasingly frenetic skein of polyrhythmic pleasure. Guitars and ngoni trade solos and Touré shouts ecstatically during "Tchirey," a seven-minute, fast-tempo blast of urgency having to do with a thunder god. Voodoo is part of the Songhai spiritual tradition, and Touré's band often sound somewhere on the outskirts of possession.

BKO, on the other hand, dish up an insider's earful. The innovatively noisome quintet that gets a loud Congotronics buzz out of a pair of amplified ngonis – both the jeli ngoni played by griots and the larger donso ngoni (or "hunter's harp") alongside percussionists on djembe and dunun drums, traps, and the serrated metal tube and scraper called a karagnan. BKO (Bamako's airport code) follows their 2014 debut Bamako Today with the immensely rougher and tougher Mali Foli Coura, or "new sound of Mali."

Mali Foli Coura is novel indeed, synthesizing griot and donso elements in tracks like the afrobeat-ish "Mali Liberela," which caution the populace to not become complacent now that jihadists are no longer terrorizing Northern Mali on a regular basis. Low-end polyrhythmic dance beats accompany "Dirty Donso"'s lyrics about the spiritually charged komo mask, while wah-wah-ing ngonis drive "Strange Koreduga," a traditional dance performed by jesters and clowns. Why Mali Foli Coura concludes with cornball chanson "Mon Amour" is anybody's guess. Every arena act deserves a ballad, of course, and BKO earn theirs by highlighting the Afro in Afro-punk.

Niger's Tal National makes no bones about its allegiances, declaring itself "High energy rock & roll from West Africa" right on its web page. Formed in 2000 by guitarist and (at least part-time) municipal judge Hamadal "Almeida" Moumine, the country's most popular band whips up a sonic whirlwind of diverse cultural ingredients. Two hundred thirty-seven miles east of Gao, Niger's capital is similarly polyglot, and its Fulani, Hausa, Songhai and Tuareg communities are all reflected in Tal National's 13-member pool. (The collective approach comes in especially handy when the six-member group needs to play two gigs at the same time.)

Tal National are the math-rock mavens of West Africa. Nigerian singer-rapper Zara Moussa delivers the opening couplet on the title-track opener of Tantabara, their fourth album since 2009, before the entire band jumps in jubilantly and takes off at an unrelenting gallop through a complex 12/8 Hausa groove. Recorded in a makeshift Niamey studio by Jamie Carter, a Chicago producer who was more professionally familiar with Joan of Arc and Chance the Rapper when he produced their 2009 debut, Tantabara has a scruffy, econo, indie-rock vibe reminiscent of beautiful Brooklyn afrojazz punks Sunwatchers or Tel Aviv-born Brooklyn guitarist Yonatan Gat, who shreds aggressively on Tal's "Entente."

"We are a people living in mountains without water," sings one of the seven vocalists who supply lead vocals on Tantabara's eight tracks, this time in the Tuareg people's Tamashek tongue. "We are a people who live in these places not because there is gold or dollars." Probably the fastest, grungiest assouf-style track recorded to date, "Akokas" offer everything but a breather.

In their black leather jackets and torn Levis, members of the Tuareg band Imarhan sure look like rockers in photographs. Imarhan (meaning "the ones who care about me") are the second generation of assouf guitarists, as the deeply grooving style is known, the so-called "children of Tinariwen." The connection is strong. Imarhan lead singer and guitarist Iyad Moussa Ben Abderahmane subbed for Ibrahim Ag Alhabib for a couple of years when the Tinariwen founder needed some family time, and Tinariwen bassist Eyadou Ag Leche produced their second album, Temet.

Tough but warm, Temet contains the handclaps, female vocal responders, and grain-mortar and goatskin tindé percussion of Tuareg music, but with gnarlier guitars and no ululating exclamations. "All pleasure ends in death; you must know that," Ibrahim sings stonily in "Tamudre" ("Living"), a rock-noir highlight that works itself up to a dark Keith Richards-ian solo before fading out with several seconds of amp hum. Based in Tamarasset, Algeria, Imarhan are urbanites who spice up assouf's incessantly rolling grooves with disco, funk and reggae as needed. "You have to function in the world of today and make use of the internet and all that," Ibrahim told The Guardian's Andy Morgan, "but you mustn't let go of the fundamentals, of your ashak [Tamasheq for dignity and hospitality] – that's essential." They're still more Hooker than Hendrix, but you can sense them pushing further into the darkness at the edge of the town, the desert, wherever.