David Harrington (Kronos Quartet) Talks Tinariwen’s Emmaar

It was Jim Thirlwell who first introduced me to the fact that deserts sing. Each dune has its own sound. Shifting sands create distinctive...

It was Jim Thirlwell who first introduced me to the fact that deserts sing. Each dune has its own sound. Shifting sands create distinctive, sub-harmonic songs. As I’ve been listening to Tinariwen’s Emmaar, I’ve kept hearing very deep, consoling, sometimes even disturbing sounds below the music. Are these low sounds the thunder of remembered galloping horses, charging camel herds, violent gun battles, or maybe just the desert singing its songs? The more I find out about Tinariwen and listen to their work, the deeper these sounds become. I remember once hearing a Japanese news report and could not understand a word of the language but heard the devastating and unmistakable rumble of the tsunami as it overtook an entire city. When I listen to Emmaar I hear the roar of ancient rushing water forged into a timeless new form. Among others, I’m reminded of John Lee Hooker, Geeshie Wiley, Link Wray, Taraf de Haïdouks, the throat singers of Tuva, Ali Farka Touré, early Terry Riley…

There is an absolute confidence to Tinariwen. They are like a society all to themselves. Music is for protection and solace, for passing on their culture. They seem to find what they need wherever they have to go. Because of the political situation in Mali, they recorded Emmaar far from home in another desert — Joshua Tree, California. But the sound of the Sahara is still there — Tinariwen carry their desert with them everywhere. (But still, I wonder what would happen if Tinariwen went to the frigid desert of the Arctic Circle to record their next album?)

Emmaar is a collection of songs that doesn’t need to be explained. Titles like “Koud Edhaz Emin” [“If I Seem to Smile”], “Toumast Tincha” [“The People Have Been Sold Out”], and “Sendad Eghlalan” [“The Constant Lethargy”] speak for themselves. The guitars occupy a musical place where sorrow and blues have been united by electric current. And if a guitar string broke and there was no replacement, well, there might be a bicycle brake wire that would work. The courage to be a group in spite of everything is what comes through most eloquently in Tinariwen’s music.

I find the music of Emmaar totally inspiring. So cool it’s hot. Years ago I had a book about desert animals that described how various animals had adapted to the harsh, unrelenting conditions. My favorite story was about a certain kind of lizard that would get itself very warm on a rock during the day and at night, as its body temperature cooled down, little beads of water formed on its back. By placing itself on an incline, those little beads formed into a single drop of water, which by morning rolled down its back and into the lizard’s open mouth, thereby providing the day’s water supply. There is something so elegant and perfect about the way that species of lizard dealt with the conditions it lived in. I think that the pervasive environment of the Sahara desert has also led Tinariwen to a similar wonderful, stripped-down musical economy.

When I listen to Tinariwen, many words and images come to mind — words like exile, empty expanse, nomad, thirst, wandering, nostalgia, conflict, preserve. But above all what I’m left with is the powerful human balm that their music creates.

David Harrington is the founder and artistic director of the Grammy-winning Kronos Quartet. For 40 years, the Kronos Quartet and its non-profit Kronos Performing Arts Association have re-imagined and redefined the string quartet experience through thousands of concerts, more than 50 recordings and 800 commissioned works, and education programs for emerging musicians.