Tinariwen are the band critics love to heap praise upon to mask the fact that they don’t know enough about world music. So as someone who doesn’t know enough about world music, and regrets it greatly, do indulge me here in joining the chorus to heap praise upon this mesmerising band.
Almost without precedent for an African group, their international success can partly be attributed to a truly astonishing back story. Writers can’t resist a good narrative, and again in this regard I am no exception.
(For a greater, more comprehensive introduction to the band’s biog, check out this piece by Andy Morgan, a specialist on West Africa and the Sahara who met with the band in their homeland 10 years ago.)
Tinariwen originate from a north-eastern region of Mali and belong to the Islamic Tuareg tribe, a Berber-descended group whose Saharan homeland spreads across geopolitical borders into Libya, Algeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Essentially displaced, and with a woman-friendly variation of Islam that goes against the grain of too many North African governments, the Tuareg people have been actively engaged in numerous conflicts throughout the post-colonial era.
In the first of many Tuareg rebellions, Tinariwen’s lead singer Ibrahim Ag Alhabib witnessed the murder of his father at the hands of the Malian militia. He was only 4 years old. Subsequently forced to flee, Alhabib met with other future band members whilst in exile in Algeria. The 80s saw them journeying to Libya where one Colonel Gaddafi was offering access to military training for all rebel outcasts. Gaddafi was playing on the Tuareg’s hopes of regaining territory in Mali, whilst secretly intending to use them for his own despotic dreams of Libyan expansion. Tinariwen’s members had realised this by the end of the 80s, and soon left Gaddafi’s military base to pursue their own careers.
Here is the part that most interests Western sensibilities: in 1990 many of the band’s members were involved in violent Tuareg uprisings against the incumbent governments of Niger and Mali. Involved in real fighting and real rebellious action, unlike most musicians where it is strictly metaphorical, much has been made of how the band’s dangerous anti-authoritarianism is given rare authenticity by their past militarism. Though as Andy Morgan observes, this simplistic approach to the band is somewhat limiting:
Like almost every other European or North American I was initially dazzled by these stories of ‘real’ rebellion and I’d admit to putting excessive emphasis on them when we started promoting Tinariwen in Europe. Prolonged contact with the band has since wised me up. It’s clear that the rebellion is a mute subject for them, one that harbours a great deal of pain and bad memories. There was adventure, and there was heroism too, but in the end, the actual conflict was but a brief episode in a long struggle which is full of unexpected shade and subtlety.
‘Shade and subtlety’ spills over from Tinariwen’s philosophy and life experience into their music. And even beyond that into the album cover of Elwan, a gorgeous photo which depicts the subtle distinctions of shade to be found in the dunes of the Sahara.
Elwan is the sixth studio album of this collective since they gave up fighting and started making professional music. It continues their core principle: Tinariwen are a groove band, with not a pretty melody or a wasted, decorative instrument in evidence. They roll along on a prominent, dry percussive backdrop for 50 minutes with little variation on each album, which you might imagine sometimes prove wearying, and it does. But not all that often, thanks to the band’s admirable consistency of intensity.
Because they are very much rhythm-oriented, Elwan might just be Tinariwen’s defining moment to date, as producer Patrick Votan (who was also in charge of 2014’s Emmaar) creates the perfect mix for their percussive pound. When the handclaps come in on ‘Hayati’, they are given the prominence of a punch to the eardrum. And laying atop the sparse Tinde drums we have grown accustomed to on Tinariwen records, the Gangas de Tagounite have been invited along on this occasion to bring a variety of different drums and polyrhythmic techniques to the tableau. It works because it deepens the groove of an already inescapably groove-driven band.
If it helps at all, I like to think of Tinariwen’s music in terms of a coconut (perhaps not the best metaphor for a desert band, but stay with me) – tough on the exterior yet with a rewarding richness to mine once you have penetrated the core. It’s true that the prominence of the rhythm section is likely to alienate listeners not accustomed to Saharan musical traditions, and Alhabib’s terse, minimal-fuss vocals can also prove alienating in conjunction with his use of unfamiliar Islamic scales. Yet notice, for example, how the lead guitar switches non-ingratiatingly from electric to acoustic on a couple of tracks (‘Nizzagh Ijbal’, ‘Assàwt’). Or a snakey riff curls its way into your consciousness on ‘Nànnuflày’, the longest and best track. Or the shrieking women pierce the relaxed atmosphere on ‘Tiwàyyen’. There is ‘subtlety and shade’ all over Elwan, you just have to become acclimatised before you can start to crack its coconut shell.
Overall though, I can’t quite endorse the album as wholeheartedly as other critics. Even if I derive pleasure from the band’s integrity, their aesthetic is for the most part as dry and forbidding as the desert from which they have been forcibly removed. Tinariwen’s caravan drives forever onwards, bravely and relentlessly, yet sometimes I wish it could just attempt to soar above the plains.