Earthy Rhythms and Poignant Power
Have you ever heard an album that seemingly comes out of nowhere, but sounds like it has been ripped from the fabric of time? Something that feels manifested, brought into being by powers and forces beyond the artists themselves? This is the experience provided by Tinariwen’s Elwan, or The Elephant, and it rumbles out through your speakers like slow, heavy feet on the ground, large, beautiful and impossible to ignore.
Tinariwen are a Grammy Award-winning group of musicians who hail from a southern Saharan mountain range between northeastern Mali and southern Algeria, an area that has been rife with conflict in recent years. They have been described as true rebels, coming into international acclaim in the past decade or so for their distinctive sound that marries West African traditional rhythms and sound with electric and acoustic guitars. Elwan opens with blisteringly bluesy licks — the kind that might be found in Muscle Shoals — before being bolstered with pounding, earthy drums played by hand.
Tinariwen have a soulful seriousness to their sound, with meaty melodies that cycle through and loop around in hypnotic fashion. The echoing openness of the drums and the occasional hint of shakers and cabasa give a sense of place, as if the rhythms are home, while electric and acoustic finger-picked melodies dance above them. Track four, “Hayati,” features a funky riff with dance-inducing shakers and call-and-response vocals that speak to the true collective nature of the group.
The album offers a clear sense of place, but less so of time — there are instruments here that have been used for centuries alongside funky bass lines and low-toned electric guitar riffs. It’s music that feeds the soul, tapping into something real and natural about sound, without being esoteric.
The album is cohesive and stylized to a “t” – a listener wouldn’t know that Elwan was recorded in two parts in two disparate locations worlds apart. Part one was recorded in 2014 when the band stopped at California’s Rancho de la Luna studios, according to their label ANTI. There, they worked with guitarist Matt Sweeny (Johnny Cash, Bonnie Prince Billy and Cat Power), Kurt Vile, musician Alan Johannes — who produced Queens of the Stone Age, Mark Lanegan and sound engineer Andrew Schepps, who has worked with Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash and Jay-Z. Two years later, in M’Hamid El Ghizlane, southern Morocco, they completed Elwan with the help of young local musicians and a group of Berber ‘gnawa’ trance artists.
While the layered vocals and resounding drums are among the most memorable parts of Tinariwen’s sound, the starker moments are reflective in their own right For example, “Ittus” has just guitar and a weathered-sounded singer. It’s a song that feels lonely, but not cold, wanting, but not worthless. A translation provided by NPR says the lyrics are three lines long and as reflective as the tone suggests: “I ask you, what is our goal? / It is the unity of our nation / And to carry our standard high.”
The album proceeds to brighter tones in the next track, “Ténéré Tàqqàl,” which maintains a slower rhythm and a few more fanciful trills on guitar. A deep solo bass vocal holds down the melody whilst singing praise and love for Tinariwen’s desert homeland. Hearing this many hand drums — played precisely and in unison – is a refreshing and beautiful reminder that the westernized rock ‘n’ roll drum kit is not the only way to give a song strength and power.
“Tayalt” features a chorus of many voices and a sitar strumming in the background, giving hints of more global influence. They show off their jammier side on the five-minute long “Nànnuflày,” a slower groove, both melodic and hypnotic. There are bits of English lyrics that speak to Tinariwen’s rebel soul and powerful spirit: “no more sleepwalking / been asleep too long.” A flute solo intro brings the quiet stillness back before “Fog Edaghan” ends the album on a calm, communal and haunting note.
Many modern American music fans probably won’t come across Tinariwen unless they’re big into reading reviews. But the more music Tinariwen puts out, the more likely they are to reach new audiences. For the uninitiated, knowing that these musicians have been at this a very long time is a great reason to listen to this album. Knowing where they come from and what their success represents — the universal nature of music — is even better.