World Music Column #3: Tinariwen

In the Sahara Desert region of Northern Mali, the half-permanent groups of regional nomadic peoples are isolated on all sides by endless shifting sands. The lifeless perimeter enclosing a tribal community, when combined with the vast expanses of desert that such a community will travel each year, encompasses a wide stretch of empty land known as a ténéré in many local dialects. It is from these borderless desert plains that the Malian band Tinariwen takes its name.

Civil war and insurgent rebel movements have ravaged Malian society since long before Tinariwen started as a group of passionate revolutionaries, and they are forces that continue to define the country’s borders today. Tinariwen’s sound and music reflects the freedom-fighting nomadic spirit embodied by the ancient peoples of Mali, a product of lives lived on the borderlands. The band’s latest album, Emmaar, is no exception.

Released last week on ANTI- records, Emmaar is Tinariwen’s first full-length in three years, following up on the critical acclaim of 2011’s Tassili, which the band says was “recorded in the Algerian desert—in a tent and under the stars.” A lot has happened in those three years since the release of their last album. Increasing regional violence forced the group to abandon camp in the Sahara, and they relocated to the high deserts of Joshua Tree, California for the recording of Emmaar. It is easy to hear the impact this distance has had on Tinariwen’s sound. The album’s tracklist features mostly slow-burning, downtempo songs with restless melodies that evoke the changing sands of the group’s former home.

Many of Emmaar’s songs are played in a style known as tishoumaren, a type of music that has evolved in rebel communities as a way of bringing the sounds of traditional Saharan songs into a contemporary context through the use of modern instrumentation. Opening track “Toumast Tincha” picks up this tradition. Beginning with a dirge-like passage of poetry spoken by Saul Williams, the song gradually moves into a rich backdrop of bright tribal guitar lines and nebulous group vocals. On the other hand, songs like “Chaghaybou,” and “Arhegh Danagh” are a welcome return to the elements of Tinariwen’s original sound and the twin-guitar lead of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and Hassan Ag Touhami.

Apart from their music itself, Tinariwen has also gained notoriety in recent years amongst Western music critics and fans alike for the incredible mythology surrounding their origins as a band. Many sources suggest that the group formed sometime between 1979 and 1982 in Libya after all of its original members had been exiled as political dissidents by the Malian government. Like their origin story, the roster of musicians that make up Tinariwen’s ranks fluctuates wildly depending on the group’s current activities. The official touring band features eight musicians in total, but there are another nine or so non-touring band members on average who also travel with the group.

Emmaar is ultimately a beautiful collection of ancestral chants and songs that spin out into intense moments of cathartic improvisation—a true reflection of the cultures and climate that gave Tinariwen their unique sound.

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