Tinariwen’s music has always embodied the restless politics of northern Mali and the nomadic lifestyle associated with its people, the swirling guitars and chanting vocals evoking a culture’s unease and movement. With Emmaar, the band continues to construct a creative vision that remains true to the music of their native country while finding ways to incorporate more traditional North American blues elements.
Unlike their previous album’s acoustic leanings, Emmaar recalls the robust electric blues arrangements of their earliest work, where ever-shifting guitar lines and percussion were interwoven with handclaps and group vocals. Opening cut “Toumast Tincha” boasts a free-flowing structure, with guitars wandering in and out of the composition as if guided by whim rather than melody, while guest musician/poet Saul Williams provides a shamanistic voiceover that accentuates the “desert blues” tone that’s long been Tinariwen’s trademark. Similarly, “Timadrit in Sahara” creeps along like a dust storm, a mass of rolling percussion and driving guitars with no true melodic center steering the arrangement.
But Tinariwen’s freewheeling aesthetic remains mostly untouched by more Western influences. In fact, the few North American musicians who do make appearances on the album are able to tailor their contributions to Tinariwen’s sound. Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer adds another roving riff to the bevy of guitars on “Toumast Tincha” and “Timadrit in Sahara,” while the album’s best guest spot comes from Nashville session fiddler Fats Kaplin adding just a tinge of Southern vibes to “Imdiwanin Ahi Tifhamam,” his intricate playing pushing against the manic guitars. It’s also one of the few tracks on the album that ramps up the tempo, providing a brief respite from the otherwise brooding arrangements.
The majority of Emmaar portrays a resonant fatalism, perhaps a result of the band’s exile from their homeland due to escalating conflicts in North Africa. Whereas 2011’s Tassili was often bright and uplifting, Emmaar wallows in regret and hopelessness; “Tahalamot” is sorrowful, the guitars and voices barely moving beyond a single monotone, while “Sendad Eghlalan” is equally downcast, the percussion limp and defeated.
Even at its most dejected, though, the album is held together by an intoxicating sense of rhythm. The band and their guests craft an aesthetic that focuses on arrangements that slowly unfurl, revealing hidden melodies that reward repeat listens. “Imdiwanin Ahi Tifhamam” opens up to reveal Kaplin’s fiddle, like light poking through the shades in a dark room, while the one-note tone of the backing guitar on “Chaghaybou” masterfully latches on to the voices at the crescendo of each verse. These smaller moments provide Emmaar with a sense of wonder, restraint, and discovery.