Currently displaced from their Northern Mali territory, where Tuareg insurgents battle radical Islamists, this band of exiles recorded its seventh album in the sketchy-sounding Maison de Fester and Gomez, a makeshift single-room studio located in another desert far, far away: Joshua Tree, California. And while Tamikrest may write more compelling songs these days, and Omara “Bombino” Moctar may play a badder guitar, Tinariwen’s three-guitar vamps, djembe drumming, call-and-response Tamashek vocals and insistent handclaps continue to exert a timeless tug on our attention.
“The ideals of the people have been sold off cheap, my friends,” sings Ag Alhabib in the vaguely cosmic-country groove of “Toumast Tincha” following its dusty spoken-word intro. Group conscience Ag Alhabib leads several tunes criticizing those who abandon Tuareg traditions for seductive modernisms; Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, the band’s other lead guitarist and singer, takes a more traditionalist tack, blending Tuareg poetry and history in tracks like the galloping “Imdiwanin Ahi Tifhamam” (Friends, Understand Me). Tinariwen’s music sounds more organic and single-minded than ever here, although you may miss their earlier albums’ female contributions. Country traditionalist Fats Kaplin occasionally adds subtle steel guitar, making Ag Alhabib’s way-downtempo “Sendad Eghlalan” (This Constant Lethargy) sound particularly languid. Lyrically, however, it’s a call to action. Emmaar means “the heat on the breeze” in Tamashek; that might also suggest a prairie fire.