Music Review: Elwan
In spite of the danceable grooves that Tinariwen has been known to deliver, a Tamashek-to-English translation of the lyrics on this celebrated Tuareg band’s eighth album frequently reveals an underlying sense of strife and sadness. The pain expressed on Elwan (“The Elephants”) is a reflection of the current state of the band’s homeland, the Adrar des Ifoghas. Located between northeastern Mali and southern Algeria, this Saharan massif has recently become a region of conflict, danger, and oppression, populated by jihadists and traffickers.
After being forced into exile, Tinariwen recorded Elwan in the desert environs of California’s Joshua Tree National Park and in the southern Moroccan oasis of M’Hamid El Ghizlane. Enhancing the group’s vocals, guitars, bass, and percussion are guest appearances by Kurt Vile, Matt Sweeney (Johnny Cash, Cat Power), Alain Johannes (Arctic Monkeys, Chris Cornell, Them Crooked Vultures), and an ensemble of Gnawa (African Islamic spiritual) trance musicians. Adding to the album’s accessibility is the presence of Grammy-winning engineer Andrew Scheps (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lady Gaga, Adele, Johnny Cash).
On songs like “Ténéré Tàqqàl,” Tinariwen laments the darkness that has fallen on the ténéré (a Tamashek word that roughly translates to “desert,” the plural of which is tinariwen): “The Ténéré has become an upland of thorns where elephants fight each other, crushing tender grass underfoot. … You can read the bitterness on the faces of the innocents during this difficult and bruising time in which all solidarity has gone.” Nevertheless, Elwan is ultimately a statement of the band’s love for its homeland, as exemplified by “Sastanàqqàm”: “Ténéré, I can now admit that I have travelled far through this wide world. Ténéré, I give you my oath that as long as I’m alive, I will always come back to you.”