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Paul McGuinness

Exile is not a notion unfamiliar to the music world. From Gilberto Gil’s political exile from Brazil’s brutal 60s regime, to The Rolling Stones’ tax issues that saw them famously decamp to France to record Exile On Main Street, part of the package is that if you’re going to go around being free-spirited and honest with your music, you’re going to piss some people off.

But for Tinariwen, their exile isn’t so much a result of their personal actions or beliefs, but the sound of a displaced people, a tribe of nomads no longer free to roam. Their homeland, found within a Saharan mountain range between north-eastern Mali and southern Algeria, has been consumed by warfare (the band famously formed decades ago in one of Gaddafi’s training camps before swapping machine guns for Fender Stratocasters), and their music is one of homesickness for a land that no longer exists. This point is reflected in the words of Ténéré Tàqqàl, one of the most powerful songs on this, their seventh studio album. “The Ténéré has become an upland of thorns/Where elephants fight each other/Crushing tender grass under foot” (when you note that Ténéré is a Tamasheq word that means empty land or desert, the plural of which is Tinariwen, things start to come together).

This is big stuff, then. But, as anyone who has ever had the immense and intense pleasure of seeing Tinariwen live knows, t ...

Exile is not a notion unfamiliar to the music world. From Gilberto Gil’s political exile from Brazil’s brutal 60s regime, to The Rolling Stones’ tax issues that saw them famously decamp to France to record Exile On Main Street, part of the package is that if you’re going to go around being free-spirited and honest with your music, you’re going to piss some people off.

But for Tinariwen, their exile isn’t so much a result of their personal actions or beliefs, but the sound of a displaced people, a tribe of nomads no longer free to roam. Their homeland, found within a Saharan mountain range between north-eastern Mali and southern Algeria, has been consumed by warfare (the band famously formed decades ago in one of Gaddafi’s training camps before swapping machine guns for Fender Stratocasters), and their music is one of homesickness for a land that no longer exists. This point is reflected in the words of Ténéré Tàqqàl, one of the most powerful songs on this, their seventh studio album. “The Ténéré has become an upland of thorns/Where elephants fight each other/Crushing tender grass under foot” (when you note that Ténéré is a Tamasheq word that means empty land or desert, the plural of which is Tinariwen, things start to come together).

This is big stuff, then. But, as anyone who has ever had the immense and intense pleasure of seeing Tinariwen live knows, they have always been a big deal. That live experience is a communal one, where the audience become one with the collective of traveling musicians, with the show rising to a climax of comradeship, solidarity and passion – at its best, a Tinariwen show is like a religious experience.

The trouble has always been how to transfer this shared experience onto record. The closest they’ve previously come is probably 2007’s Aman Imam: Water Is Life, but with Elwan, it feels as though they’ve finally found a way to communicate their music sufficiently on record. And perhaps the secret lies in the collaborations that have brought about Elwan to fruition. Recorded in 2014 in the desert of California’s Joshua Tree National Park, and completed two years later in M’Hamid El Ghizlane, an oasis in southern Morocco, near the Algerian frontier, the ever-changing collective that is Tinariwen were joined by guests including Mark Lanegan and Kurt Vile, while their African sessions saw them joined by the local musical youth and a ganga outfit (a group of Berber gnawa trance musicians).

The desert blues of Ittus is tender and personal, while the communal chant on the mournful Talyat is haunting. The guitars on Sastanàqqàm are vengeful and angry, riding the infectious funk of the rhythm section that drives many of these tracks to create a hypnotic energy that shakes to the core. Elwan means the elephants, a name reflected in the music. After all, elephants are one of nature’s most formidable forces; nomadic beasts built with as much muscular power as they are famed for their legendary impassioned nature. If ever a record sounded like a herd of elephants, this is it.

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