Album review: Tinariwen – Emmaar

The fabled nomadic veterans from Algeria play wonderfully potent music: organic, tight-but-loose arrangements that teem with life.

Mali's Tuareg-Berber group Tinariwen perform in the Lebanese town of Byblos. Anwar Amro / AFP
Powered by automated translation





The tired phrase about musicians having “paid their dues” regains heft when applied to the Tuareg outfit Tinariwen. Formed in Tamanrasset, Algeria, but hailing from Mali, these fabled nomadic veterans have a charismatic and worldly-wise leader in the vocalist and guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. At the age of 4, Alhabib witnessed the execution of his Tuareg rebel father and he later lived in Algerian refugee camps. His great facility with the Saharan blues form known as assouf has been hard-won indeed.

Six albums into their enthrallingly unique journey, political unrest continues to inform and disrupt Tinariwen’s music. With Emmaar, continuing instability in Mali necessitated their recording away from their beloved Sahara for the first time but, fittingly for a band whose name translates as “deserts”, the album was hatched in another parched locale: Joshua Tree, California.Happily, the choice elements that define and elevate Tinariwen’s music have emerged unscathed. Chaghaybou, Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim and Emajer are formulaic, but in a good way. Their use of meandering, slightly barbed guitars, hand percussion and vibrant call-and-response vocals informs organic, tight-but-loose arrangements that teem with life.

Further in, Arhegh Danagh builds to an undulating and extraordinary groove, Tinariwen sounding more like one multi-limbed organism than a collective that’s pooling its talent. Timadrit in Sahara, with its tricky gait, is a winsome puzzle for western ears trying to drop anchor, while the opening of Toumast Tincha, replete with brief atmospheric voice-over from the American poet Saul Williams, conjures a mirage.

The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” vibe is underlined by the unobtrusiveness of the album’s other guests. The Nashville-based fiddler Fats Kaplin and the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer both make appearances that you might not spot on first listen. It’s intriguing, too, that the established Tinariwen producer Patrick Votan is here aided by Vance Powell, best known as Jack White’s go-to engineer. Like White, Tinariwen like their guitars to sound feral and Powell has helped open up their sound.

We’re told that Emmaar is as politically engaged with Tinariwen’s homeland as their previous records and that part of the bassist Eyadou Ag Leche’s vocal on the aforementioned Toumast Tincha translates as: “The ideals of the people have been sold cheap / a peace imposed by force is bound to fail.” Perhaps only a fellow speaker of the group’s Tamashek language can feel the full force of Emmaar, but for the rest of us, Tinariwen’s wonderfully potent music continues to suffice.