What do you get when you cross the music of Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana with nomadic tribesmen from the Sahara desert? World music group Tinariwen delivers the answer in their new album Emaar—a beguiling blend of Middle Eastern drumming, chanting, and acid blues-rock.
And if that wasn’t fascinating enough, the whole of it is soaked in poetic political lament. Band members are all from the Tuareg people—proud wanderers of the Sahara from time immemorial but now disenfranchised citizens of Northern Mali. Islamist attempts to force Sharia law in the region, along with ongoing regional instability, means the band rarely goes home. Bassist Eyadou Ag Leche explained that they “would like to live in peace in the North of Mali, but this is very difficult. There is no administration, no banks, no food, no gas.”
All of which explains why Emaar was not recorded under the stars of the Sahara—as all their prior albums have been—but rather while eating burritos and watching Western movies in America. But Ag Leche affirmed the band is still focused on “the Tuareg issues—the need of being recognized by the administration of our country, but also some poetic ways of describing our feelings.”
Those feelings come out clearly on the opening track, “Toumast Tincha,” where they lament, “The ideals of the people have been sold cheap, my friends / A peace imposed by force is bound to fail / and gives way to hatred.” Musically the song typifies the album—slow, simmering grooves where electric guitars are layered one on top of another and mingle with percussive chanting. Guitarist Josh Klinghoffer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers adds additional spice, as does African-American poet Saul Williams.
Traditional images predominate in songs like “Chaghaybou,” where a beautiful headdress gives someone “the air of gazelles that race through dunes strewn with desert gourds.” Like so many of the songs, it is an uncanny combination of ancient and modern. The opening riff seems to jump right out of a Chicago blues hall while Tindédrums and Arabic modal scales conjure up eternal tramps through vast expanses of dust and sand.
Tinariwen founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib is a creative and tenacious bandleader. As a child living in a refugee camp in Algeria, musical instruments were practically nonexistent. So Alhabib built his first guitar out of a tin can, a stick, and bicycle brake wire. He built the band on a shoestring as well, taking it from playing weddings in Algeria and Libya to winning a Grammy. All the songs, be they political or poetic, show a deep tenderness and poignant melancholy over the plight of his people.
Ultimately, Emaar is best understood not parsed into individual songs but as a unified whole, the same way Tinariwen reflects a message for the entire people group. One way this is illustrated is Tinariwen’s striking disregard for vocal harmony, instead clustering voices along single melodies—a veritable musical heresy in the West. Its effect is a visceral and powerful sense of solidarity.
Christians should identify both with the feelings of displacement and longing—this world is not our true home—and the fellowship of community articulated so beautifully on the album. Like a good cup of tea, Tinariwen makes music that grows stronger the longer it steeps and seeps in.