Release Date: Feb 11, 2014
Record label: Anti
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Few bands have a more fascinating and turbulent background than Tinariwen. Founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib witnessed his own father’s death aged four at the hands of the Malian military. His first guitar was made from a plastic water container, a stick, some rope and bicycle wire and inspired by watching a western. He spent most of his twenties in exile in the Tuareg camps in Nigeria and Libya, away from his native Sahara, where he met fellow Tuareg exiles influences by a cocktail of North African music and western rock and pop.
Political instability drove Tinariwen from their home of Mali to the deserts of Joshua Tree to record the follow-up to 2011’s Grammy-winning Tassili. Emmaar finds the desert-blues group returning to the crackling electric sound that is their trademark, but here the implicit knowledge of conflict lingers like a fog. Droning electric guitars and tumbling hand-drums run against one another in gently dissonant counter-rhythm, while touches of funereal fiddle and well-spaced percussion create a quiet tension.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. Listening to Tinariwen's former manager Andy Morgan talk about the band and Malian music in general with Cerys Matthews as part of BBC 6 Music's recent celebration of African music, it struck me how difficult it often is for us, the Western listener, to understand the cultural and social values of Touareg musicians. We're fortunate to live in a wealthy country with stable politics; armed conflict and civil unrest is alien to the majority of British citizens who live on the mainland.
Call and response vocals offering poetic tributes to the beauty and danger of Sahara, jagged guitar riffs, sinewy grooves that proceed with the unhurried pace of a camel making its way across the desert: in their own way, Tinariwen are every bit as predictable as, say, AC/DC. With most acts, such relentless repetition of a few tricks would lead to groans of boredom. In Tinariwen’s case, however, you wouldn’t want the band to change.
Tinariwen’s identity as a band is tightly bound up in the Sahara. They are named for the vast empty spaces traversed by the Kel Tamashek (aka Tuareg), traditional nomads for whom modern borders have been problematic. The band formed in Libya while in exile from Mali, and has always made music that passionately evokes its home; their last album was recorded in the open air of that desert.
Tinariwen sure have come a long way in a short time. Although the band has been making music in its native west Africa for decades, it’s only since the release of 2001’s Radio Tisdas Sessions that they have captured the attention of the west, thanks in part to some big-name fans like Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel and Bono. Since then, five more albums have been released, along with a live DVD, and the outfit’s reputation has grown.
Challenging circumstances are nothing new to the Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) band Tinariwen. After all, most of their members had been Libyan military-trained rebel fighters engaged in active revolt against the Malian government before the Tamanrasset Accords in 1991. Beginning in 2012, real danger is ever present in northern Mali -- due to the incursion of Islamist militias -- for the Tuareg people and to musicians in particular.
Desert blues practitioners Tinariwen long ago transcended their North African roots, successfully crossing over to western audiences. Indeed, such is their international reach that it almost comes as a surprise that Emmaar, their sixth album, is their first not to be recorded in the Sahara. The temporary relocation to California's Joshua Tree desert doesn't represent a marked deviation in their style – not even an appearance by stray Red Hot Chili Pepper Josh Klinghoffer manages to ruin things.
Celebrating their 35th year as a musical collective, Tinariwen's music seems to touch on even stronger themes of persistence and achievement on Emmaar. Forced to flee their homeland due to political strife in Northern Mali, these eight Tuareg musicians from the Sahara decided to record their sixth LP in the more stable deserts of Joshua Tree, California. Mixed by Jack White-approved engineer Vance Powell and featuring guest appearances from Saul Williams, Matt Sweeney of Chavez and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, it's no surprise that Emmaar comes off as Tinariwen's most commercial and 'Western' sounding album to date.
Tinariwen's music has always embodied the restless politics of northern Mali and the nomadic lifestyle associated with its people, the swirling guitars and chanting vocals evoking a culture's unease and movement. With Emmaar, the band continues to construct a creative vision that remains true to the music of their native country while finding ways to incorporate more traditional North American blues elements. Unlike their previous album's acoustic leanings, Emmaar recalls the robust electric blues arrangements of their earliest work, where ever-shifting guitar lines and percussion were interwoven with handclaps and group vocals.
Transplant a group of veteran Saharan guitar slingers to a different desert (SoCal's Mojave, specifically the indie depot of Joshua Tree) and add some American guests – rock guitarists Josh Klinghoffer and Matt Sweeney, poet-MC Saul Williams and more. What do you get? Impressively, an undiluted Tinariwen LP that's all circular Afro-Berber riffs, hypnotic hand claps, sun, sky and sand. Unlike the excellent, largely acoustic 2011 set Tassili, the guitars here are mainly electrified, with generous reverb.
Tinariwen's sixth album was recorded not in the Sahara but in Joshua Tree, in the Californian desert, and it's their bleakest to date. Mali's best-known exponents of desert blues still find it impossible to return home ("there is no administration, no banks, no food") and their new songs reflect the pain of exile. They are joined by a few American friends, from Nashville fiddler Fats Kaplin and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer to poet Saul Williams, who intones a few lines about the desert at the start of the opening track Toumast Tincha.
Here go the pertinents on Tinariwen, because no matter how long they’re around (they formed in 1979), our favorite Malian rebels will always need thorough introduction on this side of the Atlantic. They sing in Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg nomads, though French is the official language of Mali. Their name means “deserts.” They wear robes called boubous, which aren’t particularly helpful to the western eye (three or four of the members like to have their faces almost entirely covered; on the other hand, mustachioed frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib reliably has the showiest, shiniest boubous).
When in late 2012 Tinariwen's vocalist and guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida was briefly arrested by "defenders of the faith" Ansar Dine, it was worrying proof that not even the country's best known musicians were safe from the unrest in their native Mali. While the arrival of French troops last year may have driven out many of the extreme Islamist groups, things have been far from stable in Tinariwen's homeland in the three years since their last LP. Ag Lamida joined the group as temporary replacement for frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who had left to join the Azawad rebellion against insurgents in the country.
Tinariwen — Emmaar (Anti-)Tinariwen’s second album for Anti- Records starts out with something you’ve never heard from them before — words in English. The Tuareg ensemble has long placed expressions of cultural survival near the top of their agenda, and one way of doing so has been to sing in their native Tamashek tongue. But the first words on “Toumast Tincha,” Emmaar’s opening track, are poet Saul Williams’s stagy recitation about dancing around the fire while the desert wind blows.
Tinariwen Emmaar (Anti-) With violence and turmoil displacing them from the their native Mali, Tinariwen found familiar footing in the California sands of the Mojave Desert for the band's sixth LP. Whether or not their Joshua Tree abode reminded them of the Sahara – the bandmembers descend from the nomadic Tuareg people – the Grammy-winning eightpiece certainly fell into a deep, comfortable groove. Opening with an invocation from hip-hop poet Saul Williams, Emmaar unfolds at the unhurried pace of exile.
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