Tinariwen: Elwan

Tinariwen. Photo: Marie Planeille.

In an interview now posted on YouTube, noted pianist Bill Evans put it best, “Rock is far easier to play than its cousin jazz music and is an elementary form of it, but it taught the kids where the beat is.”

That beat in question is an eighth-note rhythm, eight sounds per measure, the same as boogie-woogie, a blues style first played on piano. The backbeat is the regular percussive sound, and combined with other rhythmic layers, such as bass lines and/or a rhythm guitar, harmony, and melody, delivers a power that to this day marvels.

It has gone around the world, from Brazil with Tropicália to Chinese dissident rock. With Tinariwen and several other groups, rock has made its way to northeastern Mali/southern Algeria as the beat of Tuareg liberation and yearning, of nomads unhappy about the loss of their beloved homeland Ténéré, which spans parts of the two countries. Their latest album Elwan, which translates to “The Elephants” (on L.A. label Anti-), is proof that Tinariwen and other Tuareg bands have mastered the beat that Evans speaks of; they are making some of the best rock being produced today.

Elwan was conceived and recorded in France, Joshua Tree, California, and also M’hamid El Ghizlane, in Southern Morocco. In Joshua Tree, Tinariwen collaborated with Kurt Vile, Matt Sweeney (of Johnny Cash fame), and Alain Johannes, producer of Queens of The Stone Age. In Morocco, they collaborated with Berber Gnawa trance musicians and other local outfits such as Gangas de Tagounite. This process took three years in total. What’s come of it is lush native melodies over a well executed rock beat and harmonies, all laid down with electronic guitar alongside tinde drums, shakers, and handclaps, as a sort of dervish over a rock pulse.

Elwan is infectiously grooving; the track “Assàwt”—its lyrics begin poignantly as “that’s the voice / of the Tamashek women / searching for their freedom”—is most captivating. Other memorable tracks on the album are “Tenere Taqqal” and “Talyat,” with its use of call and response.

Tinariwen’s innovation is in the rhythm section: it features novel layers of rhythm, such as with gnawa instruments and handclaps, delicately harmonized. The baritone lead vocals of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib mesmerize alongside the multitude of instrumental accents. Elwan’s songs are nostalgic—assouf, according the band; though this is hardly conveyed to listener who does not understand the language of the lyrics, the artist’s intent is important to keep in mind.

In the same interview in which he gave his opinion on rock, Evans asked that rock musicians, now that they know where the beat is, do something less obvious with it. It’s what most rock fans with a taste for musical artistry, and not just entertainment, ask for from rock albums. Well, Evans might be smiling from his grave about Elwan. It’s innovative and that’s its beauty: as a combination of African and Western instruments and styles, it adds itself to the history of rock and roll and Tuareg music.


Adolf Alzuphar

ADOLF ALZUPHAR is a music critic.