Tinariwen – Elwan

Tinariwen have a new album, a follow-up to 2014’s Emmaar, it’s called Elwan, and it’s out on Anti-. (good work, Anti- this shit is fried gold) This band are legit – thick skinned artists with diamond hearts who serve a function beyond the usual expressions of contemporary music. This is elemental, timeless, art that resonates across cultural references and language divides.

However, it may be smart to quickly add some perspective with a couple of translations. Tinariwen sing in Tamasheq – the language of the Tuareg; Berber people of the Saharan interior. The word “Tinariwen” is the plural form of “Ténéré”; a word meaning “empty land” or “desert”.  The word “Elwan” means “ The Elephants”.

Tinariwen, have been called ‘desert blues champions’. It’s a definition that offers an understandable abbreviation of what these musicians do – yet it doesn’t fully portray the resourcefulness of their tradition, or the situation that these men are borne from. The lands that their people occupy became a combat zone when the mountain range that touches on the border of Mali and Algeria fell under a murderous regime. These men are rebels, formed in opposition to a government that was intent on wiping out the Tuareg people and culture.

At the age of four founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib witnessed the execution of his father at the hands of the government. In 1990, when Tuareg people of Mali revolted against the regime some of Tinariwen were among the rebel fighters. When these men sing, they sing with the vitality of lives celebrated or mourned against the backdrop of too-easy death and too-brutal forces that operated around them, destroying cultural heritage.

Elwan was recorded in two distinct desert locations. One section was recorded in the Joshua Tree National Park in California, the other section was recorded back in M’Hamid El Ghizlane, an oasis in southern Morocco near the Algerian frontier. The band set up their tents to record, accompanied by the local musical youth and a Ganga outfit – a group of Berber gnwa trance musicians.

Seems like a lot of history and geography involved in an album review – but that’s what you’re getting here. You hear it… the grit, pain, celebration and defiance. The longing for a return to a homeland that never existed on the map, and which has now been wiped from the earth by short-sighted brutalism. Does Elwan evolve the creative intention of the band? Is this an album that further explores themes that a critic can fathom and dissect – yes. But that’s not the point. The point is that as long as rebels sing tyrants cannot easily rest.

There are guest appearances on this album. Kurt Vile, Mark Lanegan, and Matt Sweeney all feature, displaying the kind of sensitivity that should be applauded. They plug in and play – they don’t transform process for their own platform. You can barely hear them. They should be applauded.

If you’re not a music geek you could be forgiven for asking “Why should I go pay for an album sung in a language I don’t understand?” It’s also a reasonable question, for many, to ponder “But WHEN would I listen to this rebel music?” For those people – read the lyrics below, extracted from album track, “Ténéré Tàqqàl”. And just watch the video.

The Ténéré has become an upland of thorns

Where elephants fight each other

Crushing tender grass under foot.

The gazelles have found refuge high in the mountains

The birds no longer return to their nests at night

The camps have all fled.

You can read bitterness on the faces of the innocents

During this difficult and bruising time

In which solidarity has gone.

The strongest impose their will

And leave the weakest behind

Many have died battling for twisted ends.

And joy has abandoned us

Exhausted by all this duplicity.

Tinariwen Elwan Album Cover




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