Album review: home is where the heart is for exiles Tinariwen

The Mali group's latest album Elwan reflects a yearning to return to their home country.

Elwan by Tinariwen is out now on Wedge.
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Four stars

One of the more unlikely chart trends of this year could well be protest music, as normally placid pop and rock stars become more politically engaged.

For Tinariwen, however, protest songs have always come with the territory. Such is the enduring turmoil in the band's homeland – the Saharan region of Mali – that their recordings are invariably powered by tumultuous events. Latest album Elwan is no exception.

Pioneers of the Tuareg rock movement, Tinariwen were founded to express Tuareg freedom, which was eroded significantly when Mali’s militant Ansar Dine regime arose in 2012. Popular music was denounced, one of Tinariwen’s guitarists was abducted and the band were forced into exile.

That situation shaped their previous album, Emmaar (2014), the first recorded outside Mali. Tinariwen now utilise a rather different desert studio: Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree, California, which usually welcomes major rock stars seeking an authentically desolate environment.

Tinariwen, in contrast, bleed authenticity, and their seventh album was clearly as much about catharsis as a call to arms.

That distant cry can still be forceful. The chant-heavy track Assàwt (The Voice of Tamasheq Women) is "a message for those who toil for the revolution", but elsewhere, anguished resignation reigns. Elwan means "the elephants" in Tinariwen's native language, Tamashek, and here those mighty beasts symbolise dangerous forces.

On the sorrowful Ténéré Tàqqàl (What has Become of the Desert People), they "fight each other, crushing tender grass underfoot … many have died battling for twisted ends. And joy has abandoned us".

Indeed, the album's recurring theme supports a truth lost to many migrant-fearing commentators: that most refugees just yearn to return home. Particularly affecting is Ittus (Our Goal), which dreams of "the unity of our nation", but is recorded so starkly, it suggests a man lost in an unfamiliar desert with just a guitar.

Tinariwen welcome some notable company here, as one benefit of enforced exile is the opportunity to work with more western fans. Two fine rockers of different generations, Mark Lanegan and Kurt Vile, offer a splash of Americana to the moodily mesmerising Nànnuflày (Fulfilled), while acclaimed guitarists Matt Sweeney and Alain Johannes keep the desert rock heavy on Talyat (Girl).

This increasingly nomadic band also borrowed a studio in Morocco, adding Berber trance musicians into Elwan’s evocative mix.

Tinariwen’s cross-cultural dynamic remains a distinctive, hugely positive cross-border collaboration. Musically at least, the enforced relocation would appear to have added fresh energy. Long may they rock and roam.