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. More than any other band, Tinariwen are responsible for the blossoming “desert blues” movement of guitar-based trance-rock coming out of Saharan Africa, particularly Mali, for the past 15 years.
Sadly, due to domestic unrest back in Mali, the band currently find themselves unable to return home. The latest album, therefore, was recorded not in Algeria or Mali but in Joshua Tree, California. Utilizing a custom-built studio, the band recorded tracks live together in an attempt to recreate the fluid chemistry and big-sky vibe of live performances under the stars.
The experiment worked. Emmaar is arguably Tinariwen’s strongest album since 2005’s landmark Amassakoul. Emmaar is a record that perfectly balances urgent rhythms with languorous, spaced-out sounds, with a few carefully-chosen guests chosen to contribute to the overall vibe, rather than drowning it in ill-advised collaborations as on 2011’s Tassili (um, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band – really?). It’s tempting to call Emmaar a “back to basics” album, except that that makes it sound as if the band is doing nothing new, when in fact their sound is more refined and focused than ever; it’s just that the extraneous experiments of the last couple releases have been cut away, revealing the lean, sinewy musical machine underneath.
Album opener “Toumast Tchina” revels in this new rebirth, notwithstanding its puzzling English-spoken-word opening. No worries though: the song unspools in a swirl of reverbed slide guitars and energetic percussion, and serves as a statement of purpose of sorts. Happily, many tracks here are equally outstanding. The five-minute “Tahalamot” is a show-stopper, all soupy reverb and twangy licks, with chanted harmony vocals and a vigorous bed of drones to keep things hypnotic. The funereal “Sendad Eghlalen” slows the tempo and introduces a mournful note to the proceedings. (Ironically, the translated lyrics in the liner notes reveal this to be a warning against national lethargy.)
Excellent songs are many. “Arhegh Danagh” effortlessly envelops the listener is a warm embrace of throaty vocals both solo and unison, with a low-key but irresistible array of guitar lines and handclaps pulling him/her insistently along, while album closer “Aghregh Medin” betrays a brief flurry of guitar dexterity before settling into another gently rolling, midtempo number. Unusually, the guitar plays in unison with the vocal melody, and breaks free for extended solos between verses.
This is unusual. As on other albums from the band – and as a genre convention in general – these songs are not structured around verse-chorus-verse-bridge-solo structures. The band settles into a groove quickly on any given tune, with the various instruments piling on one after another, and percussion layering up gradually with handclaps, handheld drums, hand cymbals and so on. Call-and-response vocals are common but rarely does anything like a chorus show up, nor does a guitar step forward for a solo for more than a few bars. This is communal music, and the overall effect is of a loping ride over the dunes, with one song cascading into the next, and trance-inducing rhythm being conjured up overall.
Tinariwen is a hugely important band on the world music scene right now, and they have been for many years. Longtime fans can feel relief that this album maintains the band’s high standards, or even surpasses them. For newcomers, this release marks an excellent starting point to jump in and see what all the fuss is about.