Home is truly in the heart of Tinariwen. Even after exile, through struggle and strife, and after a few close brushes with tragedy, Tinariwen continuously defies their shortcomings through community in music. They walk the walk, chant the chants, and create some of the deepest and most dynamic sounds originating from the sand dunes of West Africa. They don’t do it alone and they don’t always do it at home, but they’re heritage and history is heard in every thump of the djembe, pluck of the string, and harmonizing chant.
Elwan in particular is true to the customary Tinariwen sound with intricacies of new sounds, rhythms, and purpose. Engrained with traditional composition, Elwan branches out into different signatures and structures that aren’t necessarily African in derivative. Yes, this is a new benchmark for the group, but the true magic lies in bridging the gap between traditional West African music and western arrangements. Not only does this paint a landscape of the sounds and roots of their homeland, it layers and interjects the vastness of their capabilities and depth of composition. The rhythmic possibilities are an open plain, and this is a group that searches every crack and crevasse to distinguish their art. But let’s leave talent aside, since low and behold the core group is grounded on a decades-old basis that thrusts the term “veterans” to mind (hint- they aren’t new to this game). And after all, they’re veterans of true roots music…
On Elwan in particular, the group is quite customary in nature. By enlisting the guitar assistance of the great Kurt Vile on “Tiwàyyen” and “Nànnuflay”, soundscapes expand into seemingly uncharted waters (or sand dunes?). But this is not quite a departure from their old selves. The prior releases of Tassili (2011) and Emmaar (2014) procured the ranks of collaborators ranging from Josh Klinghoffer from Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to Tunde and Kyp of TV on the Radio and Nels Cline from Wilco. Expansive horizons, eh? But the group doesn’t stop there. Elwan also includes the help of Matt Sweeney, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and many others to provide subtle yet incredibly powerful and contemporary undertones. With their true West African base, the group goes above and beyond their capabilities, and layers on top of their sound like layering a cake. Just check out “Nànnuflay” for example. This number includes key elements of Kurt Vile on guitar (tone and instrumental, especially towards the end) on top of the signature bass and djembe foundation. It’s almost as if you’re riding in a caravan across a sea of sand with Kurt Vile throwing accents of his own into an already-pristine landscape. Magic.
They take a worldwide holistic view of sound and apply to what they know best: the music of their homeland. Home lies in collaboration. For Tinariwen, home is home. Elwan is no different.
The sand dunes blues if you’re unfamiliar with West African music. Here’s a take: trade black water swamps and porches for caravans and sand dunes. The strife, the raw spiritual yearning, and emotion are all the same. In fact what’s truly fascinating about the group is their ability to channel these emotions and physical states through dynamic composition. Low and behold, Elwan translates to elephant, and Tinariwen couldn’t have translated it better.