Exile runs deep within Mali’s surprisingly dense recent musical history. From Ali Farka Touré’s conscious refusal to be drawn to the bright lights of Europe, to Songhoy Blues’ impassioned ‘Music in Exile’ album, recorded after being forced out of the country by an extremist Salafist insurgency, it’s an inescapable theme. Following this trend, ‘Elwan’ (meaning ‘Elephants’), the seventh studio album by veteran Touareg desert-rockers Tinariwen, is a melancholic ode to the Sahara. Recorded separately between California’s Joshua Tree national park and the deserts of Southern Morocco, due to the tense political situation in Northern Mali, Tinariwen lose none of the sound that makes them such a captivating listen.
Originally a collection of lone acoustic musicians, the story goes that they formed inside one of Colonel Gaddafi’s military training camps, escaping together to form a band and trading their machine guns for electric guitars. The sense of rebellious energy that comes through in their early music is converted to anger on this latest effort.
The opening track Tiwàyyen, featuring westerns musicians Kurt Vile & Matt Sweeney, rumbles with a deep percussive acrimony, the sharp electric guitar cutting through patterns of discontent, the voices collectively bemoaning their exile. This theme underscores many of the album’s other up-tempo tracks, such as ‘Sastanàqqàm’ and ‘Assàwt’. The percussion is powerful, dark and hypnotic, echoing the barrenness of the Sahara yet bowing before its natural power. The vocals, sung in their native Tamashek language, are mournful and pained, whilst the guitar riffs swirl endlessly around the beats, roaring with an even greater emotional agony. The album is so finely poised between aggression and mourning, with the tracks mentioned counterbalanced by the more haunting ‘Ittus’ and ‘Nànnuflày.’ Tinariwen show their tremendous versatility here, able to pump out incredibly rhythmic rock and slow, melodic folk in equal measure.
Yet what’s even more remarkable, is that despite their absence from their homeland, and the presence of such strong western influences, they retain a sound so close to the Tuareg rock that they founded their careers upon. Even Mark Lanegan’s verse, sung on ‘Nànnuflày’ in English, sounds as if it was plucked straight from the Sahara. It shows how passionately Tinariwen cling on to their heritage, and this passion is evident throughout the album.
The late Ali Farke Touré, known as the ‘African John Lee Hooker’ and probably the most notable musician to have ever emerged from Mali, once said that when he played his guitar, he saw “a thousand years of ancestors just behind me and above my head.” You get the sense that Tinariwen have the same apparition following behind them, no matter where they end up.