Release Date: Feb 10, 2017
Record label: Epitaph
Undoubtedly, the stories behind the scars on the bodies of the older members of the group - who were trained as soldiers before they found music- permeate into what has been dubbed 'desert blues'. But this is a different kind of blue, and possibly the furthest point away from the American blues ideal. The Tinariwen version is not about love lost or love found; Elwan is bigger than any one person or individual.
Since coming to the attention of Western listeners in the 2000s, the Tuareg artists in Tinariwen have managed to keep their "desert blues" sound intact, while varying some elements of songwriting craft. The largely acoustic aesthetic of 2011's Tassili saw input from American indie talents, like TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone and Wilco's Nels Cline. On 2014's Emmaar, Tinariwen reveled in some funkier arrangements.
If Tinariwen's very moniker literally means 'deserts' in the Tamasheq language spoken by the Tuareg people of Timbuktu, their music is anything but as arid as their namesake. On their latest record, Elwan, this band of recently-outlawed musicians sound as immediate as ever, bursting with ideas and musical themes that throw influences from blues, folk, rock and their local tishoumaren into an irresistible melting pot. In a cruel twist of fate, whilst Tinariwen's status and renown grew over the past few years as they travelled the globe touring their music to adoring and accepting crowds, the frontiers that encircle their desert home were being closed by Islamic extremists and forcing them into exile.
Decades of cultural displacement, political unrest, and even a kidnapping have somehow failed to dim the spirit of Tinariwen, the long-tenured Saharan desert blues outfit from Northern Mali. Over 30 years into their career and with six albums to their credit, the Tuareg band has maintained a global presence and garnered widespread critical acclaim for its distinctive sound fusing West African assouf traditions with a potent multi-guitar attack. For their seventh album, Elwan, Tinariwen reunited with producer Patrick Votan, who also helmed 2014's dramatic Emmaar.
Though Tinariwen's moniker translates to "deserts" in the Tamasheq tongue native to the band's members, there is nothing barren, arid or inhospitable about their music. Rather, the Malian troop's songs boast flowery, blooming vocals, drums that patter like fresh falling rain and guitar riffs that deeply unspool like roots in rich, soft soil. Many of the songs on Tinariwen's new album, Elwan, also defy the uninitiated expectations of how a Saharan band should sound, evoking not scorching sand but instead subtle, slow burns. "Sastanàqqàm" is a prime example, thanks to its initial, softly clacking beat that sounds like a horse approaching from far off, followed by chanting before a guitar riff comes rushing in like spring water.
W ith their Saharan homeland now a conflict zone threatened by Salafist insurgents, the Tuareg band recorded this seventh album partly in California's Joshua Tree national park and partly camped at an oasis in southern Morocco. Its moods are correspondingly distinct. Tracks such as Tiwayyen come ….
Elwan translates from Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg people, as The Elephants. Elephants are no more indigenous to the Sahara than ocelots are to Montana, but in recent years home turf has often been out of Tinariwen's reach too. Formed over three decades ago in Libyan refugee camps and long based in regions of Mali that have changed hands violently several times in recent years, in 2012 the combo was specifically targeted by the Islamist group Ansar Dine as part of a total ban of popular music.