Album Review: Tinariwen – Emmaar




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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). But on their seventh international album, Emmaar, recorded in Joshua Tree, California, the slithery Sahara-dwellers again prove they’re one of our great non-English-speaking bands. Ostensibly political without sounding like it needs Constance Garnett-levels of translation, it’s wash-over music, almost background music, partly but not all because it sounds every bit as distant as it is.

For better and worse, surprises on Emmaar are scarce if there are any. While they’re fans of all manner of classic rock — they dig Hendrix and Zeppelin, on top of collaborating with the likes of TV on the Radio and, here, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Josh Klinghoffer — Tinariwen say they make “guitar music.” Vague as it sounds, that typically denotes a camel-ish pace and a crawl like Bob Dylan’s “Highlands”. Other staples of the group’s sound recur here, including soft drumming and vocals that multiply midway through the verses. “Arhegh Denagh (I Call on Man)” simmers as it slowly builds. “Emajer (The Heat on the Breeze)” patters and steps with chanting that sounds more conversational than that found elsewhere. Emmaar, though, can run together to a fault, in part because much of it sounds alike and partly because it is (or at least sounds) so wordy. But in the spirit of the Olympics (not that Mali is home to a single athlete competing in the Winter Games), the whole thing is worth observing even if you’re not personally invested.

Essential Tracks: “Arhegh Danagh (I Call on Man)”, “Emajer (The Heat on the Breeze)”