The success that Tuareg blues rock band Tinariwen has seen in the West is truly astonishing. Comprised of musicians from the Sahara Desert region of Mali, Tinariwen have been active since the late 70s, but didn’t begin to get a taste of success outside of their home region until the turn of the millennium, when they came into contact with French world music ensemble Lo’Jo, performing with them in France and organising the annual Tuareg music festival in Mali, Festival au Désert, with their help in 2001. Tinariwen headlined this festival, which started to put them on the musical map and led to them playing other festivals by the end of the year, most notably Rosklide, the largest music festival in Northern Europe. During the same year, the Tuareg outfit released their first album to be distributed internationally, The Radio Tisdas Sessions, which only received minimal recognition outside of Northern Africa, but was nonetheless received well by the publications that reviewed it. The next decade saw steady success for Tinariwen, but the release of 2011’s Tassili — which brought in many outside musicians, most notably Wilco guitarist Nels Cline — saw the group’s critical and commercial success skyrocket. The record received universal critical acclaim and won the band a Grammy in 2012 for Best World Music Album. As for the music on the album, Tassili saw Tinariwen work with a much more raw and natural approach, with this album featuring, according to producer Ian Brennan, the least overdubbing and most live-orientated ethic of any record in the band’s back-catalogue. This sound carried onto Tassili’s follow-up record, Emmaar, which has the most startling backstory of any of the band’s previous releases. Following the band’s success at the Grammy Awards, guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida was kidnapped by Islamist militants and Tinariwen were displaced from their home region by a Tuareg rebellion, with the other members fleeing to the US. As a result, Emmaar was the group’s first record to be recorded outside of Northern Africa, and saw an increased use of popular musicians: these including Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Josh Klinghoffer; member of Jack White’s solo touring band Fats Kaplin; political activist, actor, poet and experimental rapper Saul Williams; and Matt Sweeney, a man known for collaborating with a ridiculously large plethora of musicians. True to their status as a Tishoumaren band, a genre founded on the political and social hardships of the Tuareg people, the lyrical content of Emmaar dealt not only with the personal persecution of the band and its members, but commented on the increasing political turmoil in Mali at the time. These musical and lyrical sentiments appear as prominently as ever on Tinariwen’s newest studio effort, Elwan, also making use of a whole new host of musicians, from Kurt Vile to Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees fame to Alain Johannes of Queens of the Stone Age fame and featuring a reappearance from Matt Sweeney. All the pieces seem to be in place on Elwan and, indeed, Tinariwen have come through with another strong release that arguably exceeds expectations, proving to be one of their most musically tight and lyrically imaginative albums to date, further expanding the ever-growing ripples this Tuareg outfit have been making for many years all around the world.
The musical and lyrical content on Elwan is as emotionally-diverse as the band’s bittersweet rise to prominence, which has seen tremendous success for the group whilst also putting them at odds with some of their own people. A song like Ténéré Tàqqàl details the grief the group feel regarding the corruption from within their home nation as they sing, “The strongest impose their will / And leave the weakest behind”. The band’s commentary on the political conflict within Mali transcends boundaries of political partisanship and more broadly comments on the anguish that so many people in the area feel towards the state of their homeland (“Many have died battling for twisted ends / And joy has abandoned us, exhausted by all this duplicity”). The poignant poetry on much of Elwan seeps through distinctly on this track in particular, with the lyric, “The Ténéré has become an upland of thorns / Where elephants fight each other / Crushing tender grass underfoot” coming to mind as stark, beautiful and cognisant. Things become even more interesting when you realise that these lines not only refer to the album’s title (with Elwan meaning ‘elephants’) but also the band’s name, given that the plural of Ténéré is Tinariwen, providing for some almost haunting self-referencing in what are perhaps the darkest lines on the entire record. Nonetheless, in the face of all this bereavement and agony, many songs stand out as showing incredible resolve. Ittus, which translates as Our Goal, for instance, stands out both musically and lyrically. The composition, written by Tinariwen founder Hassan Ag Touhami, sees a minimal vocal performance accompanied only by an electric guitar. The lines, “I ask you, what is our goal? / It is the unity of our nation / And to carry our standard high” are repeated throughout this sombre song’s runtime. Such a stripped-back and stark song is a bold statement that would typically be reserved for the position of the last track on the album, but here, Ittus appears as the fifth of the album’s 13 tracks. On Elwan, Tinariwen have arguably outdone themselves on the lyrical side of things, which is something that cannot be said lightly given the high standard of emotional investment and heartrending poetry on their previous releases.
Musically-speaking too, it seems that Tinariwen are pulling out all the stops, displaying some of the most impressive diversity and musicianship on a studio album thus far in their already-extensive career. The opening song, Tiwàyyen, features amongst the strongest musical ability on the whole record, with the lead guitar line displaying influences from beyond African blues music and to the jam rock stylings of a band like Grateful Dead, to whom Tinariwen have been compared in the past. The strong traditional African beat, accompanied by a warm and simple bass groove, provides fantastic counterpoint to these fluttering guitar flourishes. In the composition’s closing moments, the band remain completely in form as the tempo gathers pace until its abrupt ending. Nànnuflày stands out thanks to the vibrant, echoey guitar featured throughout this song, as well as the great vocal arrangements, which are amongst the most dynamic and melodious on the record. Also, the bongos are incorporated into the mix really well and fill in the space left by the airy guitar sounds. The second song, Sastanàqqàm, starts off sounding like a conventional funk song, with its smooth bass accompanying the light punctuated drumming. This track really picks up after the introductory section, when some angry and dirty guitar leads that wouldn’t sound out of place worked into a punk song kick in. The way in which this piece progresses is fantastic, with some lovely experimentation with dynamics and subtle embellishments from the rhythm section that reinforce the funk-influence on this cut. The musical quality on Elwan is much the same as it has been on Tinariwen’s previous two records, but in a slightly tweaked format here, resulting in a record that is as lyrically pertinent to the band’s backstory as it is musically significant.
Elwan is a masterfully-crafted journey through the best and worst of this Tuareg band’s stories and successes. It is an album that is as lyrically diverse as it is musically, with both of these factors contributing to a varied and textured record encompassing many different moods that enthral the listener throughout. The flat moments on Elwan are few and far between, with these songs evolving in such an interesting and subtle fashion that none of this record feels unneeded or wasted. Tinariwen capture the listener’s attention with some vibrant and shining guitar melodies and smooth and funky rhythms, and then use their platform to deliver moving accounts of their country’s struggle towards harmony. Elwan further fortifies this group’s position as one of the ringleaders of modern Malian music that is heard all around the world, and they make a compelling case for their continued work as messengers for Mali’s political strife.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10