Reviewed by: Matt Kelchner
On their seventh studio album, Elwan, Tuareg band Tinariwen delivers one of their most powerful albums to date. The Grammy-award winning group has made a name for themselves over the past two decades for their worldly blend of guitar driven music and this record is no different. From start to finish, there is an overarching theme that comes from within the lives of Tinariwen. Underneath their trademark rhythmic trances and whirlwinds of guitars lies a driving force — a constant feeling of yearning for a familiar time and place that is now out of reach.
Emotions run high on Elwan (which means ‘The Elephants’) due to the recent slide in crisis their homeland has endured. Situated between a mountain range in the Saharan region of north-eastern Mali and southern Algeria, Tinariwen’s home has taken a dangerous turn into a conflict zone. While their latest songs still recall the Saharan deserts, it has become a much different area from which the band began.
Due to the turmoil, the making of Elwan shifted towards a more nomadic experience than previous albums. Time was shared in a handful of places dotted around the globe; in France, the United States and Morocco. It was at Rancho de la Luna studios in the Joshua Tree National Park in California where most of the album’s guest stars stopped by. The likes of Kurt Vile, guitarist Matt Sweeney and musician Alan Johannes all lent a helping hand.
The band later traveled to M’Hamid El Ghizlane, a southern Moroccan oasis near the Algerian border, to complete the album. It was here where they met up with local youth as well as the Gangas de Tagounite to help flesh out songs. Compared to their past efforts, Elwan features a more expensive range of percussion thanks in large part to the addition of the Gangas de Tagounite.
The end result is an album that pushes Tinariwen to new musical heights. Instrumentally, the swirling guitars and almost hypnotic rhythms that stand out right away. Yet, it’s the loss of what they once knew that emotionally that gives Elwan it’s true strength. While the trouble and chaos continues to wreak havoc on their homelands, the group continues to be a voice for their community and a shining star that the Tuareg people can be proud of.