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Bill Meyer

Elwan translates from Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg people, as The Elephants. Elephants are no more indigenous to the Sahara than ocelots are to Montana, but in recent years home turf has often been out of Tinariwen’s reach too. Formed over three decades ago in Libyan refugee camps and long based in regions of Mali that have changed hands violently several times in recent years, in 2012 the combo was specifically targeted by the Islamist group Ansar Dine as part of a total ban of popular music.

While the heat has been turned down on open desert warfare, it’s still not safe for Tinariwen to record around the old homestead; they made Elwan in Joshua Tree, California, Montreuil, France, and M’Hamed El Ghizlane, Morocco. The elephants they sing about on “Ténéré Tàqqàl” are giants that lay waste to all around them as they battle each other. The song ends with a sentiment awfully close to despair; “Joy has abandoned us, exhausted by all this duplicity.” It must be discouraging for core members Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Abdallay Ag Ahhousseyni, and Alhassane Ag Touhami that their message of cultural survival in the face of massive, inimical forces is even more pertinent now that it was when they first swapped songs and guitars in 1980.

But if anyone’s suited to hanging in there over the long haul, it’s a people that has spent centuries navigating caravan routes on th ...

Elwan translates from Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg people, as The Elephants. Elephants are no more indigenous to the Sahara than ocelots are to Montana, but in recent years home turf has often been out of Tinariwen’s reach too. Formed over three decades ago in Libyan refugee camps and long based in regions of Mali that have changed hands violently several times in recent years, in 2012 the combo was specifically targeted by the Islamist group Ansar Dine as part of a total ban of popular music.

While the heat has been turned down on open desert warfare, it’s still not safe for Tinariwen to record around the old homestead; they made Elwan in Joshua Tree, California, Montreuil, France, and M’Hamed El Ghizlane, Morocco. The elephants they sing about on “Ténéré Tàqqàl” are giants that lay waste to all around them as they battle each other. The song ends with a sentiment awfully close to despair; “Joy has abandoned us, exhausted by all this duplicity.” It must be discouraging for core members Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Abdallay Ag Ahhousseyni, and Alhassane Ag Touhami that their message of cultural survival in the face of massive, inimical forces is even more pertinent now that it was when they first swapped songs and guitars in 1980.

But if anyone’s suited to hanging in there over the long haul, it’s a people that has spent centuries navigating caravan routes on the backs of camels. If the spirited acoustic guitars and hand drums on “Talyat” and “Assàwt” and the funky bass and fuzzy electric leads on “Sastanàqqàm” sound like calls to battle, the songs’ words say why they fight; out of solidarity with women who are don’t get to leave like they do, and because they still take heart from the desert they know and love even though it is being dried beyond the point of habitability by climate change and uranium mining. Higher-end production values and a handful of famous rock guests have little impact upon their fundamental sound, which is a swirl of unfurling guitar lines, massed voices, and clip-clopping percussion. Elwan is not a soundtrack for defeat, but perseverance.

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