Though Tinariwen's moniker translates to "deserts" in the Tamasheq tongue native to the band's members, there is nothing barren, arid or inhospitable about their music. Rather, the Malian troop's songs boast flowery, blooming vocals, drums that patter like fresh falling rain and guitar riffs that deeply unspool like roots in rich, soft soil.
Many of the songs on Tinariwen's new album, Elwan, also defy the uninitiated expectations of how a Saharan band should sound, evoking not scorching sand but instead subtle, slow burns. "Sastanàqqàm" is a prime example, thanks to its initial, softly clacking beat that sounds like a horse approaching from far off, followed by chanting before a guitar riff comes rushing in like spring water. "Talyat" is in the same vein, featuring a sole yearning vocal at the start, then gently tapping percussion, before serpentine guitar notes slither in and all of Tinariwen's members lend their voices to the chorus.
That climax comes quicker on "Assàwt," which begins with some spindly guitar strumming but is quickly followed by absorbingly booming drums and electric guitar notes that spurt and dribble in all manner of unpredictable patterns. An even greater surprise comes courtesy of the shrill backup singer's cry, which bursts out from the more plodding sing-speaking two thirds of the way through "Imidiwàn n-àkall-in." It's a chilling vocal plot twist that evokes agony and yearning, and could very well be a reflection of the fierce conflict in the "Saharan mountain range between north-eastern Mali and southern Algeria" that the band calls home (you can read more about that here).
Moments like this make the album deeply moving and emotionally tangible to Western audiences, despite being sung in another language. (Contributions from established American artists like Kurt Vile and Matt Sweeney don't hurt, though thankfully their input is seamlessly woven in and doesn't overshadow the band's masterful work).
By making the geographically distant feel welcomingly familiar, Tinariwen have made Elwan a can't-miss release for curious audiences from all corners of the globe. (Anti)