How do you build on the reputation that has made your band the most visible ambassador of an entire people? For its seventh international album, Emmaar, Tinariwen has some striking ideas that were born out of both creativity and absolute necessity.
Unfortunately, Emmaar reflects the unpleasant truth of this time in Tinariwen's career. It was made in the U.S. due to the political troubles in the band members' beloved ténéré, the Sahara Desert — which is the home of their people, the Kel Tamashek (also known as the Tuaregs).
While the nomadic Kel Tamashek are spread and frequently migrate across Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya, Chad, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and other nations in the region, Tinariwen's home area of northern Mali is experiencing a particularly hard time. Various groups of Islamist extremists have tried to impose their version of society on northern Mali, banning music and threatening musicians directly — including kidnapping one of the band's members, Abdallah ag Lamida (a.k.a. Intidao), who was released in early January 2013. (Intidao does not appear on Emmaar.)
Moreover, northern Mali's infrastructure has been wiped out entirely, and the chaos has created a dangerous free-for-all, strengthening the hand of warlords and other criminals. So while Tinariwen's last album, 2011's Tassili, was recorded in the relatively safe setting of the Algerian Sahara, Emmaar was created in a different desert: Joshua Tree, Calif.
In certain ways, Emmaar is a product of that geographical shift. While Tinariwen's signature sound remains — with all those loping rhythms, low-rolling guitars and lyrics that slip between piercing political observations and elliptical poetry — a certain Americana seeps into the crevices of the album, with appearances by guests like Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and Nashville musician Fats Kaplin, whose fiddle in "Imdiwanin Ahi Tifhamam (Friends, Understand Me!)" provides a sweet lift. Despite the pain and politics that surround Emmaar's birth, it's a pleasure to hear how Tinariwen keeps finding new ways to translate the soul of the Sahara for fans around the world.