The new album by Tinariwencouldwell have been calledExile on Main Street. But other people have alreadythought of that. It alsocould have been calledA la recherché du pays perdu (‘Remembrance of a lost country’). Exceptthatwould have been a tadProustian for musicianswhogrew up prettymuchbetween a rock and a sand dune, in the midst of theirgoatherds and camelcaravans. But the ideaisapt. As is the painfulparadox, if youconsiderthatwhileTinariwenwerebusy criss-crossing the globe on theirrecenttriumphant tours (160 concerts played in the pastthreeyears), expandingtheir audience on all five continents, becoming one of the latest musical phenomena of trulyuniversal calibre, the frontiersthatencircletheirdesert home wereclosing down and double-locking, forcing theminto exile to record thistheir 8th album.
Over the past five years, theirbeloved homeland in the Adrar des Ifoghas, a Saharanmountain range thatstraddles the border betweennorth-eastern Mali and southernAlgeria has, in effect, been transformedinto a conflict zone, a place wherenobodycan venture without putting themselves in danger and wherewar lords devotedeither to jihad or trafficking (sometimesbothat the same time), have put anyactivitythatcontradictstheirbeliefs or escapes their control in jeopardy. Eventhough the 12 songs on this new record evokethosecherisheddeserts of home, theywererecorded a long wayawayfromthem. And, as a result of thisseparation, at a time when the political, military and humanitarian situation in the region has never been socritical, the feelings and the emotionsthat the band managed to capture on record have never been sovivid.
In October 2014, making use of a few days off in the middle of a long American tour, the band stopped off at Rancho de la Luna studios in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. The place has become the favoured refuge of the stoner rock tribe. Josh Homme and his Queens of the Stone Age were the first to makeittheirhive, and sincethen, whether in use by P J Harvey or the FooFighters, Iggy Pop or the ArcticMonkeys, neither the mixing console nor the kitchenovens have had a moment to cool down. For Tinariwen, the geographical location of the studios – lost in the middle of that horizontal desert, thatmineralimmensity, where Man isreminded of hisowninsignificance in waysthatcanonly, in the end, eitherkillhim or sublimatehim – proved to beparticularlypropitious in terms of creativity.
And the humanclimatewasjust as favourable. As session followed session, musicianswho know the place welldropped by to addtheirowntouch to thatpre-industrialboogiewhichcomesfrom a world whereonly the essential and metaphysical passions of space and time have anymeaning. Suchwas the case of Matt Sweeny, guitarist of fine pedigree (Johnny Cash, Bonnie Prince Billy and Cat Power) and an avowed fan of the band. Kurt Vile, ex-member of the duo War On Drugs, nowspearheading a noisyindi-folk combo, alsotook part in the debate. As did Alan Johannes, multi-instrumentalist, soundengineer and producer of the first few albums by Queens of the Stone Age, a band withwhom Mark Lanegan, the otherguest on the album, has also been a singer. Fromtheir angle, one might have expected all these contributions to result in somethingprettyheavy, withthose American guitarscominginto to reinforce the ishumar (name of the musical style of whichTinariwenprecursors) guitars of Ibrahim, Abdallah Hassan and Elaga. In effect, lovers of thosesensualyet abrasive riffs that are the band’s signature won’tbedisappointed. But neitherwillthosewho love the funky, danceableside of Tinariwen, whichcomesthroughloud and clearcourtesy of bassistEyadou and percussionistSarid, a veritablerhythm machine in the mould of Sly and Robbie. All thatpotential has been wonderfullyhoned by the album’smixingengineer Andrew Schepps, who has previouslyworkedwith the Red Hot ChilliPeppers, Johny Cash, and Jay Z.
That happy encounterbetween Tamasheks and rockers wasalready in evidence back in 2011, with the involvement of Wilco and TV On The Radio on the album Tassili, whichwasrecorded in the depths of the Sahara. It was as if thosemusicians, comingfromtheir world of hightech, leisure and entertainment, sought to reinvigorate the waythey do things by workingwithartistswho have been forced by necessity to reduceeverything to its essence, and whobear a differentdestiny. In thatsense, Ibrahim and histribe restore meaning to an activitywhich has been partiallydrained all existential significance. In a cultural environmentthat has been overtaken by the petty and the superficial, the members of Tinariwenfascinatebecausethey incarnate a salutary break and come across as the ultimateheroes in the midst of an army of fleshlesspuppets.
Havingsaidthat, in M’Hamid El Ghizlanethey’reheroes for real, somuchsothat the youth of the area know how to singtheirsongs in the samewaythat people in other parts of the world know how to sing the Stones or LedZep . It wasthere, in that oasis in southernMorocco, close by the Algerian frontier, that the band set up theirtents for threeweeks in March 2016 to record this 8th album, accompaniednow and then by the local musical youth in question, or by a local Gangaoutfit (a group of Berber ‘gnawa’ trancemusicians). The album iscalledElwan (‘The Elephants’), not Exile On Main Street, thoughitfitsnicelyintothat ‘road record’ categorynonetheless.
There are road records justlikethere are road movies. In American cinema, a road moviealwaysunfolds the sameway. Characterstravelfrom one place to another in search of sometruth, of a future mightofferthemsomekind of revelation. But theyalways end up reconnectingwiththeirownpast, theirorigins. Of course, it’s an impossible return, becausethatpast, thosefoundingorigins have been irrevocablyerased. It’s the same for this record, somusicallypowerful and yet poignant in humanterms: everysongevokes a land thatcan no longer befound, a lost world, with all thatthisimplies in terms of emotional range, fromnostalgia for a joyouspast to the tragicrecentloss of a territory, and of the dreamthatitnourished. The emotional ‘bite’ of thatloss imbues some of the songs by Ibrahim, such as Imidiwan n-akal-in (Friendsfrommy country), Hayati (My life) or Ténéré Takhal (What’sHappened to the Desert). It’s in that last songthat the famouselephants of the album titlemaketheirappearance, an animal metaphor to describethose ‘beasts’, whethermilitias or multinational consortiums, who have trampledeverything in theirpath: kindness, respect, solidarity, ancestral traditions and the values essential to life in the desert, whereboth the human and ecologicalequilibriums are extremely fragile.
But the songswritten by Abdallah, such as Sastanaqqam (I Question You), or thosepenned by Hassan, the deeplydisturbingIttus (Our Goal), alsoevoke a similarsense of helplessness and disempowerment. The samegoes for Nannuflay (Fulfilled), written by Eyadou, one of the ‘kids’ in the band; it’s a songechoesthatsense of absolutecrisis. Havingsaidthat, between the weariness of the oldfighters of the Touareg rebellion of the 1990s (Ibrahim, Hassan, Abdallah) and the dynamism of a youththat’sstillemerging (Eyadou, Elaga, Sarid, Sadam), youget a wonderfullysymbiotic mix. The meeting of twosuch disparate generations in one band isrelatively rare in today’s musical world. In Tinariwen, it’s a meeting thatcelebrates, even more powerfullymightotherwisebe the case, the capacity of music to makeexperiences as intense and cruel as exile beautiful and, in someways, even attractive, experiencesthatwouldsurely end up destroying thosewholivedthem, if thisform of aesthetic relief didn’texist.
Translated by Andy Morgan