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The Heat on the Breeze: Tinariwen’s Saharan Rebel Blues

On June 27, 2015

picture via ANTI-

This is a story of why life is better on wax.

I learned about Tinariwen, a hypnotic Saharan Desert blues-rock collective that’s been around since the early 1980s from a friend last month. He put one of their new songs on a mixtape for me, or whatever one calls a collection of songs curated and bequeathed to another via Spotify.

The song’s title strung together too many consonants for me to pronounce, but its driving tempo and droning, repetitive guitar work pitched in musical modes unfamiliar to my westernized ears intrigued me enough to procure more mp3s of Emmaar, the band’s album that Anti- Records released last year. I lived with these tunes digitally for about two months—gently grooving and softly humming along to the melodies of these bluesy songs I couldn’t understand—until I got too frustrated. I knew there was more to Tinariwen and their current release that I couldn’t find in low-grade audio files presented with no context.

Luckily, the vinyl version of Emmaar is both aesthetically stunning and profoundly informative. The cover shows six men of the collective, most donning tradition veils, robes, and coverings, who sit or lean on the edge of a fence as a washed-out desert sky encroaches on the upper third. A horse cantered in front of the camera mid-shot, blurring the equine and directing attention back to the band in the middle of the image.

The large-format desert imagery continues inside the gatefold, as well as on both envelopes caressing and protecting the two vinyl records of Emmaar. Lyrics and liner notes populate the backs of the envelopes, too. And on the wax itself, Sides A and C offer clean designs, heavy on simple typography and white space that provide basic recording and copyright information. Sides B and D, however, feature illustrations evocative of English photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s running horse. It’s like watching a flipbook caricature jump and move with each expedited page turn as the records spin at 33 ½ rounds per minute.

But Tinariwen does not live in a society where one can judge based on the physicality of one’s musical product. A double LP will not clothe or feed where Tinariwen comes from. The 12 ½ ” x 12 ½” gatefold portraying vast, empty deserts will not provide refuge to those fleeing from those places where Tinariwen began.

The members of Tinariwen come from the northern region of Mali, an African country with a rich musical history of artists that have pervaded the Western consciousness like blues guitar wizards like Ali Farka Touré and his son Vieux Farka Touré and the folk duo Amadou & Mariam. Tinariwen are Tuareg people, though, historically desert nomads with a culture that melds Islamic religion with their own traditions rooted in such transience throughout Mali, Algeria, Libya, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger.

The original musicians—vocalists and guitarists Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, and Alhassane Ag Touhami—founded Tinariwen in Tuareg refugee camps in Libya. Today, members of a younger generation who grew up listening to the band during a spell of peacetime in the1990s—multi-instrumentalist Eyadou Ag Leche, guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid, and percussionist Said Ag Ayad—have also perform in the Saharan rebel blues band.


picture via CIIS

Mali’s current unresolved conflict, loosely affiliated with the Arab Spring, began in early 2012 when Tuareg rebels attempted to overthrow the Malian government for control over the northern region of the country. Internal turmoil among the rebels followed, as opposing visions for the new state arose within them and the Islamist groups that initially supported them. Although the rebels and the Malian government signed a peace agreement in June 2013, the deal ended after violence (with accusations pointing toward the government), erupted a few months later.

Such political instability forced Tinariwen to record outside of Africa for the first time in their six-album career. They traveled to Joshua Tree, California in April-May 2013 to create Emmaar. Like 2011’s Tassili, which included American musicians like Wilco’s Nels Cline and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone and won a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album, Emmaarfeatures a number of other artists from the States. Poet and musician Saul Williams is actually the first voice you hear on the record, contributing spoken word to “Toumast Tincha.” The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Josh Klinghoffer plays guitar on three tracks and Matt Sweeney of the New York-based alternative band Chavez plays guitar on another. Additionally, Nashville-based multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin adds fiddle lines and pedal steel croons to a few other songs that quietly accentuate the American South without imposing.

The word “emmaar” literally translates to “the heat on the breeze.” It’s a wealth of imagery contained in just one small word and musically, the 14 tracks ofEmmaar swelter and burn. They offer nostalgia for a land that band members forsake in order to make this record; they capture a readiness for perpetual motion. Throughout Emmaar, guitars and tribal lutes called tahalamoyt meander while traditional drums like the tindé keep time in softer clacks and clicks. The repetitive melodies of the stringed instruments present easy reference points, like music of the African diaspora foreshadowing Robert Johnson at the crossroads. And yet, the vocal melodies also elicit comparisons, although probably less familiar, to the lines of ancient Jewish worship songs that rise and fall in major or minor keys depending on the type of text.

Tinariwen tells these tales of this rebellion and life within the confines of constant conflict in a regional dialect of the Tuareg people called Tamasheq. The metaphors and poetic descriptions extend into the hearts of each song and thanks to the vinyl package, English translations of these texts accompany each track. Penned with such grace and truthfulness, the lyrics offer so much more emotional depth and social awareness to a record that’s enjoyable in its own musical right, but difficult to process profoundly without any outside perspective.

There’s the lead single that serves as a generational admonition of irrationality in the face of instability:

Youth of the Sahara

We’re telling you how it is.

You mustn’t doubt our aptitude

Or think we’re incapable.

That world out there is more advanced

And more powerful than we are,

Because it awoke before we did.

Now we will awake ourselves.

We’ve learned how to use other weapons

Than those our ancestors bequeathed to us.

- “Timadrit In Sahara (Youth of the Sahara)”

And there’s the plea for peace that’s hindered by an acceptance of conflict and discord:

I call upon the wisdom of the people of knowledge.

Opinions battle each other

And I no longer believe in unity.

I will only believe in it again if

Those opinions serve a common ideal:

That of the people from which they emanate.

- “Aghregh Medin (I Call on Man)”

Tinariwen masters this art of melding gritty, bluesy musical goodness with social goodness on Emmaar. They rope in listeners with tunes that are foreign, yet, familiar, and ensnare fans with the art of the written word and the power it holds when it’s sung. Understanding everything Tinariwen has to sing and say is the challenge. Finding that meaning within Emmaar is the joy.

So really, this is more of a story of seeking greater perspective through music, no matter the format in which that music is presented. It’s a reminder, like Tinariwen often suggests, that we have a choice when we face things that we don’t understand: we can choose to ignore or banish that which is different. Or, we can commit to the commonalities and empathy among us, and hopefully find beauty in the unknown.

Click here to buy Emmaar

Hilary Saunders writes things, often about music. Follow her on Twitter @hilarysaunders


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