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Tinariwen - Emmaar

Tinariwen - Emmaar

by , 25 February 2014

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Listening to Tinariwen's former manager Andy Morgan talk about the band and Malian music in general with Cerys Matthews as part of BBC 6 Music's recent celebration of African music, it struck me how difficult it often is for us, the Western listener, to understand the cultural and social values of Touareg musicians.

We're fortunate to live in a wealthy country with stable politics; armed conflict and civil unrest is alien to the majority of British citizens who live on the mainland. Our cultural output is high and often commercialized, so music is regularly seen more as a commodity than an artistic or humanitarian endeavour. Our societal mind-set vilifies communities who by their nature and history are nomadic, such as Romani, Roma and Irish travellers.

Maybe, even in this uber-connected and super globalized era, Western audiences are still - generally speaking - far removed from the less-documented struggles of life on the African continent, and particularly in this context, in the West African country of Mali.

So when artists like Sidi Toure or Fatoumata Diawara - just two members of a vast legion of incredible musicians produced by the landlocked state - play to tens of thousands of music fans at festivals and venues across Europe, the US and beyond, we the Western listeners perhaps get to hear and see much more than the music on offer.

Tinariwen, like their fellow Malian artists Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabaté, Rokia Traoré or Bassekou Kouyate, have a distinct sound. Borne out of traditions of story-telling and praise-singing passed down through generations alongside the sounds of native instruments like djembe, calabash, bala and kora, music plays a hugely significant part of the Malian character and identity.

This particular collective of musicians, singers and songwriters have embraced many of the beliefs and customs specific to the Touareg people, having moved and performed around the Saharan regions of Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Mauritiana and Libya over the last thirty years. But playing with up to six guitarists through amplification marked the band out as a little different from the outset. Going electric, as Morgan has explained in the past, carries Tinariwen's sound further and harmonizes perfectly with the mourning wails and ululations that punctuates their music.

There's also a superbly crisp and well-defined quality to the guitarwork that runs through most of the group's material; hammered strings exploring pentatonic scales in the Assouf style, tempered with a little added distortion and the right amount of reverb and echo. These are the hallmarks of Tinariwen's music, and are in no short supply on Emmaar, their sixth album to date.

"The ideals of the people have been sold cheap, my friends / A peace imposed by force is bound to fail" sings Eyadou Ag Leche on opening track 'Toumast Tincha', with the familiar hypnotic rhythm guitar line and empathetic percussion marking the beginning of a shared journey that takes in dusty vistas, endless trails, uncertain and hostile landscapes, barren panoramas and a constantly moving, shifting political and social ideal.

With tracks like 'Chaghaybou' which speeds by at around the 98bpm mark, the faster and slightly more upbeat 'Imidiwanin Ahi Tifhamam', a strong driving Western rock beat on 'Koud Edhaz Emin' and plenty of the usual trance-inducing moments including on 'Emajer' and 'Agregh Medin', Emmaar reaches the parts that 2011's gentler, softer and acoustic-leaning release Imidiwan skirted past. This is fierce back-to-roots music, integrated with the band's obvious development in style, evidenced by subtle Western influences like slide guitar, the apparent guesting of Saul Williams and Chili Peppers axeman Josh Klinghoffer as well as credits for Jack White engineer Vance Powell.

What is so incredibly powerful about Tinariwen's music, its beautifully hypnotic nature and spiritual colour aside, is that it feels both familiar and foreign at once. Recognisable elements like the strains of Robert Johnson, Robbie Krieger or Jimmy Page bending notes or playing with drawn out tremolo effects come and go, but the haunting male vocal chants, tribal drumming and guitar squeals and licks - as on 'Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim', the majestic 'Tahalamot' and 'Sendad Eghlalan' - are always constant, absolutely transporting us to another plane.

This, as with many Tinariwen experiences live or on record, is a road trip like no other. Inspirational work, yet again.

Rating: 8.5/10

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