critic’s pick 325: tinariwen, ’emmaar’

tinariwenOn paper, the premise seems disastrous. The great Tuareg band Tinariwen, the voice of revolt in its African homeland of Mali, was recording its newest album in California. Could it be so? Was one of the most heralded world music bands of the day going the way of the Eagles?

Rest assured. Emmaar, Tinariwen’s seventh international album, merely trades one desert for another – specifically, the Sahara, where the band members have lived as nomads for decades, for Joshua Tree, the smaller, less primitive desert community in Southern California.

While the new record continues the modest input of American collaborators that began on Tinariwen’s Grammy winning 2011 album Tassili, it is no means an Americanized work. Aside from the spoken English intro by poet/singer Saul Williams, Emmaar (Tuareg for The Heat on the Breeze) is a sampler of chant-like recitations, all sung in Tuareg, revolving around layers of guitar rhythms that emit a wholly meditative aura.

The album notes contain rough English translations of the lyrics to at least guide listeners through their thematic origins and messages. But to domestic ears, the album’s incantatory sound overrides everything. The prayer-like Arhegh Danagh (I Want to Tell), for instance, begins in waves. The opening guitar jangle sounds like distant radio static. But it quickly becomes a casual yet precise harmonic backdrop once Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s vocals enter. Percussion and ensemble singing then color the music before the song fades as mysteriously as it began                                                                                                       

The groove is more pronounced during Timadrit in Sahara (South of the Sahara) and Koud Edhaz Emin (Even If I Seem to Smile) but not in any conventionally American way. This isn’t verse-chorus-verse stuff or even rudimentary dance floor music instigated by a single, sustained beat. The guitars on these tunes move about intricately, as if the music formed a ballet. They establish mood and presence, move effortlessly with considerable grace (and no small element of mystical wonder) and then vanish. What lyricism each song conveys lingers just long enough to lead into the next tune, making Emmaar less like a collection of songs and more like one extended piece with 11 brief movements.

Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and Nashville fiddler Fats Kaplan make up part of the abbreviated guest list, but don’t bother trying to pick them out of this global stew. In the world of Tinariwen, all music is rhythm – a soulful breeze as vast and unyielding as the deserts it calls home.

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