What is it about deserts? It is often said that the Saharan music casually referred to as ‘desert blues’ was the precursor to what we now know as the American blues – the sparse, eventless horizons giving time for extensive self-reflection and for experiences and resentments to coalesce into eternal statements. And then there is the Californian desert rock scene, with a similar dose of unhurried, sky-filling catharsis, but with added pharmacological assistance.
For their eighth album, Tinariwen have married together the two traditions. Taking their North Eastern Malian heritage – their elite performance of the traditional music of the area is such that they have long been celebrated for it in the West, which is a disappointingly rare thing – they decamped to the Joshua Tree National Park, and the famed Rancho de la Luna studios. After mining the talents of a handful of the perennial desert dwellers there, they returned (near to) home, pitching up near the Moroccan/Algerian border to complete the recordings.
The decision was not purely an aesthetic one. The band spent nearly three years on tour following previous album Emmaar, in part because of the harrowing turmoil that their home in the Tuareg region of Mali and Algeria has been suffering through. In late 2012, it was reported that professional musicians in the town of Kidal where several of Tinariwen’s members live had been personally threatened by Islamist militias who had assumed control of the region.
As you might expect, the theme dominates sections of the album. The track Ittus, which translates as Our Goal, is a defiant statement. “I ask you, what is our goal/It is the unity of our nation/And to carry our standard high,” sings founding member Hassan Ag Touhami. It is not emotional propaganda, but a level-headed rallying cry. Elsewhere, Ténéré Tàqqàl is a love letter to their homeland, a collision of sadness and warmth as they grieve for what has become of the communities that spawned them. It invokes the ‘elwan’, the tamasheq word for elephants, of the album’s title – an analogy that appears to condemn the Western multinationals that are ripping out the heart of the region as much as the Islamist terrorists.
The fury is tangible in places, but it is not the only mood on Elwan. Lead single Assàwt is bursting with energy, with percussionist Said Ag Ayad’s skipping rhythms propelling the band more playfully than elsewhere. Sastanaqqam boasts a rousing electric guitar lead and one of the record’s hookiest vocals, whilst the chant-along communal ‘Hayati’ will stir even the most passive listener.
The most obvious remnants of their spell recording in California come with the guests that they scatter throughout the tracklisting. In several cases, it is impressive how seamlessly the theoretically contrasting styles mesh: on opener Tiwàyyen, Kurt Vile and Matt Sweeney’s guitar parts are not immediately distinguishable from those elsewhere on the album, with the rolling, hypnotic groove simultaneously evoking both parties’ previous work.
The most striking guest spot comes on Nànnuflày, where Vile returns, but this time more distinctively. His trademark reverb-doused lead guitar is still a snug fit, but clearly from outside the band. Fellow desert urchin Mark Lanegan pops up on vocals – English vocals, in case there were any doubt – at the track’s climax, a somewhat bizarre but acceptable interlude. That track’s outward embrace may have something to do with the fact that it was written by one of the relative youngsters in the band, bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, whose outlook for the Tinariwen’s future may be broader than that of some of the elder statesmen.
Their last studio record saw them in upbeat, energetic form, and whilst that playfulness is still present at times on Elwan, there is a conscious grounding too this time around. The atrocities against the Tuareg people have inevitably left an indelible impression on Tinariwen, and this album reflects that. Whether they face permanent exile or not, their willingness to embrace external music has already proved fruitful, and given the opportunity, it will doubtless continue to do so.