Reviews February 10, 2014

On the cover of Ammasakoul, Tinariwen’s album from a decade ago, a camel perches on top of a guitar neck. For their new album, Emmaar, the cover captures two horses (and the tail of a third) in motion, galloping past the band in the Joshua Tree desert of California. And the album opens, not in Tinariwen’s native Tamashek, but in English, with the poet/MC Saul Williams intoning, “Walking through wind. Walking on water. Through the desert. There I see it. My beloved. Dancing through fire.” These, however, are the only English words on the album. And despite the fact that though there are  other American musicians on the record (Josh Klinghoffer of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nashville fiddler Fats Kaplin, and Matt Sweeney of Chavez), their contributions are muted, far more low-key than the cameos from TV On The Radio (among others) that seemed to make up the bulk of Tinariwen’s last album, Tassili. They’ve traded in camels for horses, the Sahara for the American west, but Tinariwen remains the same band-- those intertwining guitar tones and voices sound as arid as whatever desert they set up camp in.

Naturally, the plight of their people, the Tuareg, and land, Northern Mali AKA Azawad, weighs heavily on Tinariwen, but apparently the group also took the time to enjoy their new surroundings, eating burritos and watching westerns while making the album. Part of the Tinariwen legend is that founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib built his first guitar from a bicycle wire, stick, and tin can after seeing a western, so the band already had a strong connection to the scenery, if not the burritos that came with it. Regular readers of Afropop probably already know plenty about the mighty Saharan outfit’s history and that of their war-torn region-- if not here are a few links to check out.

The group has been around for for 35 years now (albeit in various incarnations). Since Tinariwen first began to receive Western attention in the late '90s, plenty of other similarly minded Tuareg groups--Terakaft, Tamikrest, Tartit, Bombino-- have followed in their footsteps. While Emmaar doesn’t have the high-powered forcefulness of Tinariwen's earlier work (to hear the group getting their Hendrix on, go back to “Tenhert (The Doe)” or “Chet Boghassa”), the album has a concentrated, emotional heaviness to it that other groups can emulate, but never top.

The opener, “Toumast Tincha,” shows that the band has seemingly grown more meditative, but the slow, churning opening makes the soulful harmony and quivering guitar solo at the end of the song all the more effective. Take a look at the video for the song below:

Friendship has been a running theme throughout Tinariwen’s career: the band even named one of their albums Imidiwan: Companions. Imidiwan, the Tamasheq word for “friend” also makes it onto their new album, both in the lyrics for the song “Arhegh Danagh” and the title of “Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim.” That emphasis on camaraderie makes sense, as the group made the album in the same house in Joshua Tree that they slept in, all together in the same room. On “Arhegh Danagh” there is a certain weariness to the singing, but the dedication of each band member to their craft and one another shines through as the guitar parts weaves together.

The dark mood of Emmaar really peaks on “Tahalamot,” a song that sounds like it was made during a particularly somber gathering around a midnight campfire, with chanting and the steady buzzing of a very low guitar notes. But “Koud Edhaz Emin” picks up the pace of the album considerably, with the spirits of the band sounding visibly lifted around some bouncing drum playing and a funky (if fleeting) bass line. That leads into “Emajer,” perhaps Emmaar’s finest moment. It begins with a light fluttering of dueling guitars, and winds up with the most tuneful melody on the album. There is power to the delicacy of the melody, offering a welcome break from the clenched tension of the rest of the album. Throughout Emmaar, the yearning for return to their homeland is clear in Tinariwen’s voices, but their new surroundings have produced a beautiful record, full of a poetry and deep feeling that can be understood just as well in Joshua Tree as the Sahara.

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