Tuareg musical collective, Tinariwen, were formed in exile in Algeria in 1979. Refugees from the Tuareg homelands in Northern Mali, Niger and South Libya, many of the group were participants in the ongoing insurgency and only began to concentrate fully on music following a cease-fire in the mid-1990s. Coming to international prominence through headlining Festival au Désert near Timbuktu, slots on the European festival circuit, wide critical success, world tours and a Grammy followed. But with the Salafist rebellion in 2012 – which saw music banned in two-thirds of Mali – and the Tuareg uprising of the same year, Tinariwen were once again forced to flee their homeland. Consequently, Elwan, their seventh album, was recorded in the Californian desert of the Joshua Tree national park and the southern Moroccan oasis town of M’Hamid El Ghizlane. As with their most recent previous album, the aching, forlorn but defiant Emmaar, exile is Elwan’s dominant thread both lyrically and musically.
Elwan is a great sounding record; dry, rich yet spacious – a velvet cocoon for the ears. On ‘Nizzagh Ijbal’, with its flashes of reverbed organs, or in the delicate balance of echo and delays in ‘Nànnuflày’ there is a warm sense of space and distance – worthy of your best headphones or a serious set of speakers. There is always something expanding the sound at the edges of the stereo picture. Each song develops a subtle but distinct layering of percussion, voices and instruments – the shifting swaying drone shuffle of ‘Imidwàn n-akàll-in’ or the writhing guitar lines that run off the forceful rhythm of the acoustic-led ‘Talyat’. Though several tracks, like ‘Talyat’ and ‘Assàwt’ are prominently acoustic, Elwan marks, for Tinariwen, the return of more electric guitar tones and stylistics – spring reverbed pull offs, accidental harmonics and hammer-ons emphasising the unique scales that seem so much a distaff variant of the blues until they are just, absolutely not.
Significant highlights are the tribute to the voice of the Tamasheq women, ‘Assàwt’, with its shoulder-shaking almost Fela Kuti-like groove doubled in the organ and guitar lines and the rolling, spiritual ‘Ténéré Tàqqàl’ (which has a superb video) which imparts a sense of resignation rather than revolution “… joy has abandoned us… the strong impose their will and leave the weakest behind.” Musically the whole album swings beautifully and features close but tough harmonies in fourths or fifth and combinations of call and response, hypnotic repeated vocal rounds and the occasional blood-curdling throat oscillation.
But the deep sense of assouf, the pain of homesickness and exile, that is not physical, is strong throughout – in the sparse guitar and voice unison of ‘Ittus’ and the ethereal, under-the-stars feel of the flute intro to ‘Fog Edaghàn’. It is a great album, it does not outstay its welcome; the final ‘Fog Edaghàn’ – a space-delay trip, lit by mournful voices, a nasal front of skull drone, and skittering claps and stick clicks – is the last mysterious snapshot of a disappearing place, seen in the rear-view mirror of memory.