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Andy Gill

Sometimes, events conspire in ways which dwarf the largely adolescent concerns of rock and pop. Take the plight of Tuareg desert-rockers Tinariwen, acclaimed cultural ambassadors currently unable to reside in their beloved Tenere (homeland) due to the Salafist insurgency ultimately caused by Western adventurism in Libya. Elwan (Elephants), perhaps their most powerful album since Amassakoul, confronts their situation head-on, in songs musing on the values of ancestry, unity and fellowship, driven by the infectiously hypnotic cyclical guitar grooves that wind like creepers around their poetic imagery. “The Tenere has become an upland of thorns where elephants fight each other, crushing tender grass underfoot,” sings Ibrahim Ag Alhabib on “Tenere Taqqal”, lamenting their homeland’s use as battleground for struggles between elephantine power blocs beyond their control; while the abandonment of ancestral ways draws equal criticism on his own people in “Imidiwan N-Akall-In”: “All that’s left is a groaning land full of old people and children / Oh my brothers! You’re on the wrong path”.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a deep vein of melancholy running through the album, which had to be recorded in France, Morocco and California (where the likes of Kurt Vile and Alain Johannes contributed additional guitar lines) rather than Mali. But they remain positive despite their situation, wi ...

Sometimes, events conspire in ways which dwarf the largely adolescent concerns of rock and pop. Take the plight of Tuareg desert-rockers Tinariwen, acclaimed cultural ambassadors currently unable to reside in their beloved Tenere (homeland) due to the Salafist insurgency ultimately caused by Western adventurism in Libya. Elwan (Elephants), perhaps their most powerful album since Amassakoul, confronts their situation head-on, in songs musing on the values of ancestry, unity and fellowship, driven by the infectiously hypnotic cyclical guitar grooves that wind like creepers around their poetic imagery. “The Tenere has become an upland of thorns where elephants fight each other, crushing tender grass underfoot,” sings Ibrahim Ag Alhabib on “Tenere Taqqal”, lamenting their homeland’s use as battleground for struggles between elephantine power blocs beyond their control; while the abandonment of ancestral ways draws equal criticism on his own people in “Imidiwan N-Akall-In”: “All that’s left is a groaning land full of old people and children / Oh my brothers! You’re on the wrong path”.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a deep vein of melancholy running through the album, which had to be recorded in France, Morocco and California (where the likes of Kurt Vile and Alain Johannes contributed additional guitar lines) rather than Mali. But they remain positive despite their situation, with the songs of Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, in particular, finding solace in reverie of the nomadic life, with “your friends and your mount, and a brand new goatskin, watertight”, and in the lingering memory of a “light-skinned girl with blossoming face” emerging from a tent. The latter song, “Talyat”, bounds along eagerly, with its enthusiastic call-and-response vocals riding a dervish web of guitars and drums. Musically, the album features much more extensive percussion than the simple handclaps and tinde drum of Tinariwen’s earliest records; here, the Gangas de Tagounite quartet employ a range of extra drums and shakers to add an urgent, peppery depth to the music.

Ultimately, the album’s success is rooted in the balance between the barreling, spiky grooves of tracks like “Tiwayyen” and “Assawt”, with their skirling whorls of guitar, and the more contemplative reflections on solitude and fulfillment, such as Eyadou Ag Leche’s “Nannuflay”, to which Mark Lanegan adds a verse about “no more sleepwalking”. It’s Eyadou’s most pointed observation that best summarises the band’s invidious position, “pursuing memories built on a dune that’s always moving”. Thankfully, they’re used to that nomadic existence.

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