This album expresses beautifully the longing of Tuareg nomads in exile whose Saharan homeland has been the site of successive wars. The Islamist militias who took over Northern Mali in late 2012 denounced Tinariwen’s music and even kidnapped one of their members. Several of the band participated in previous Tuareg rebellions, meeting for the first time in a military training camp before they swapped their machine guns for guitars.
Tinariwen founded a new musical genre known as desert blues, and this album once more easily outshines their imitators. As with several previous albums, Elwan was recorded abroad due to the turmoil at home. This ever-evolving collective recruited several American guests for the recordings in a studio in the California desert and a group of Berber gnawa trance musicians for the later sessions at an oasis in southern Morocco.
The mood is by turns meditative and rebellious, underpinned by a palpable sense of yearning. Lyrics contemplate belonging and ancestry, unity and fellowship. Elwan means elephants, and the title’s meaning is made clear in “Tenere Taqqal”. This song laments their homeland’s ongoing war between seemingly huge power blocs: “The Ténéré has become an upland of thorns/ Where elephants fight each other/ Crushing tender grass under foot.” Ténéré means desert, the plural of which is tinariwen.
One writer memorably labelled Tinariwen’s music as “trance with attitude”, an apt summary of the band’s trademark sound, dominated by hypnotic, spiralling guitar. Gentle snaking riffs and call-and-response vocals evoke the desert and draw on traditional Tuareg melodies. Elwan has more extensive percussion than the simple handclaps and drums of earlier albums. Energetic and spiky tracks like “Tiwayyen” and the stand-out single “Assawt” are balanced by more reflective songs such as the dreamlike “Nannuflay” and “Eyadou” which refers poignantly to “pursuing memories built on a dune that’s always moving”.
The fight for independence which swept across Africa in the late 1950s and 1960s excluded the Tuareg people. Like the Kurds, their ancestral homelands were sliced up between new independent states. As a child, founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib witnessed horrors including the execution of his father. He tells the story of watching a Western movie which featured a cowboy (played by Roy Orbison!) playing guitar, which then inspired him to make one of his own using a tin can, a stick and some wire.
Seeing Tinariwen live is a memorable and highly recommended experience that doesn’t transfer easily onto record, but this is their most powerful album since 2004’s Amassakoul. I’m not so sure about the guest appearances on their more recent albums — they seem to me to dilute the isolated and displaced feel of their music. On the other hand, if not for the enthusiastic backing of famous Western musicians like Robert Plant, they might never have been heard outside their homeland. Play this loud and prepare to be moved in brain and body.