Don’t read another word, just play this:
That video is pretty much all you need, Tinariwen’s leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib being driven around the Joshua Tree National Park, the expansive, rocky scenery mirroring the music and the clever cuts to flames in line with the rhythm. It really is a great understated video and pretty much gives you what you need to grasp Tinariwen’s 2014 LP Emmaar in one fell swoop. It’s only fair to start by telling you that I love this band unreservedly and you’ll get absolutely no objectivity from here on in.
The back story of Emmaar is a sad one. Due to the Islamic fundamentalist insurgency in Mali Tinariwen were forced to record their last LP Tassili in Algeria and were forced to record far further afield this time, again for reasons of safety, the Joshua Tree National Park, no less. For a band as routed and as invested in their homeland and culture as Tinariwen the results are palpable, Emmaar is by and large a far more stately, sombre and subdued set of songs from them. Themes of homesickness, companionship and loss are almost omnipresent in the Touareg music I’ve heard, inevitably so I’d imagine in a traditionally nomadic culture, themes which are given an added poignancy by the political situation in Mali. There is even a soppy song or two about girls, because Tinariwen = Human.
Tinariwen respond to their circumstances, not with all guitars blazing this time, but with a stately dignity that demands your respect from the get go on ‘Toumast Tincha’. Much as I love his stuff the spoken word intro by Saul Williams is entirely superfluous, I’d prefer just to hear the guitars shimmer into view like the early rays of sun rising free over a desert escarpment in the morning; Emmaar translates as ‘the heat on the breeze’. Williams is not the only guest on the opening track RHCP guitarist Josh Klinghoffer adds his strings and Fats Kaplin adds some very discreet pedal steel. There is some rather great low-key blazing guitar towards the end of the ‘Toumast Tincha’, which translates as ‘the people have been sold out’; some sentiments are, sadly, universal.
Over 14 tracks* we are treated to a lot of stylistic variations on the band’s sound but, as always, the overarching sound is the desert. I love the frenetic, percussive ‘Chaghaybou’ the fastest track on offer here, the forceful, almost rapped vocals and slashing guitar take me somewhere very special indeed. It contrasts brilliantly with the likes of ‘Timadrit In Sahara’ and ‘Imidwan Ahi Sigdim’ which wend a timeless tireless groove across the aural horizon, evoking a wonderful sense of space and place. I am also a sucker for the gorgeous melancholy of ‘Sendad Eghalen’ a call to fellow countrymen to beat their ‘constant lethargy’ which features some wonderfully understated pedal steel from Mr Kaplin; who also lights up ‘Imdiwanin Ahi Tifhamam’ with his fiddle turning it into a Sub-Saharan hoedown.
But as always with Tinariwen the guitar is king and I really think there are few finer, moodier players out there than the band leader, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. Like almost all of the musicians I end up venerating I think his great strength, once you take great tone and sheer dexterity for granted, is the fact that he knows when to play and when not to – those spaces are every bit as important as the notes he plays; just check out the live-ish version of ‘Islegh Taghram Tifhamam’ above for some perfectly sparse playing.
Interestingly one of the very best tracks on Emmaar is a bonus track, ‘Adounia Ti Chidjret’, which with my fluent Tamashek I’d translate as ‘The World is Vast’, which is a real smouldering desert rocker with great vocals and, as always, perfect guitar.
Okay, okay, you get the picture I’m sure, I love this sound and I love this band. More to the point though I would say that I dislike it when bands get pegged as ‘world music’ because they don’t come from a western nation and/or sing in a tongue other than English, it’s a bit of a reductive and increasingly irrelevant label these clicky days. Tinariwen’s sound is itself an amalgam of influences, both traditional and decidedly not-so traditional, they make exciting, contemporary music informed by their particular culture and those they partake in around the world. Music is music, is music.
And on that note of profundity I will go from you, like the heat on the breeze.
*3 bonus ones on the vinyl edition. Did I tell you how much I love Tinariwen yet?