You don’t have to know a lick of the language to understand the sadness cocooning the sound.
If you think there’s been a recent boon in Saharan centric African music over the last few years, your ears have been partially deceiving you. The region has always been filled with rock’n’roll rebels and genius artists. It’s just that U.K. and American musicians have started taking note. Damon Albarn seems to have a second home in Mali. The Black Keys worked with Hendrix disciple Bombino. And an entire gaggle of rockers (TV on the Radio, Dire Straits, Wilco) have jumped onto the Tinariwen bandwagon. But Tinariwen, unlike many springing into the American consciousness, have been playing since some of their current collaborators were in diapers. They are the excellent old guard of this region’s music.
Formed in the late ’70s by ringleader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Tinariwen drive a political stake into all of their music. Alhabib was a Malian exile when Tinariwen first started playing, and their music cried in horror at the political violence that engulfed Mali during the 1962 Tuareg rebellion. But this isn’t the slam down drinks and burn down the pub of The Sex Pistols, nor even the jadedness of The Clash. It’s something a bit harder to pin down, a mixture of longing, sorrow, weariness and, occasionally, hope.
Tinariwen combine their region’s rebellious music, Tichumaren, with the soulful cries of American and British blues music. It’s music that can be danced to from time to time, but so much of the sound is imbued with a plaintive sense of melancholy. The opening guitar solo of “Ittus” comes directly after the pop-infused “Hayati,” itself filled with catchy melodies and call and response vocals. But “Ittus” brings that brief joy down with a lead weight. The guitars on here tend to use their lower registers, nearly tipping into bass territory. They don’t whine or scream, instead they plead and sigh. “Ittus” is only a gritty voice wavering in and out of view, a bass and that guitar, rising in volume only once before coming back down to earth. You don’t have to know a lick of the language to understand the sadness cocooning the sound.
And for the bulk of Elwan, those are the emotions Tinariwen play with. The nearly trance-like “Talyat” is followed by the blistering “Assàwt,” which click-clacks along at a fiery pace. Opening duo “Tiwàyyen” and “Sastanàqqàm” are as rock ‘n’ roll as it gets, filled with steely guitar riffs and full band choruses. But that flow is slowed to a crawl by the meditative “Nizzagh Ijbal.” There are good times to be had on Elwan, to be sure, but weariness and hints of dread are never too far in the background.
But there are songs between those extremes, and they are the album’s standouts. “Ténéré Tàqqàl,” “Arhegh ad annàgh” and “Fog Edaghàn,” with their beautiful guitar work, slow tempos and more contemplative vibes feel nearly like lullabies. “Ténéré Tàqqàl,” in particular, isn’t just gorgeous but deeply calming. Its rolling guitar work sounds warm and comforting. These are brief, and wondrous, rays of optimism. And that might be the best lesson Tinariwen teaches through their music. Fight, dance, scream, let your voice be heard, but also take time to watch the stars and rest. Or, maybe, listen to an excellent rock ’n’ roll album.