The new album Elwan by Tinariwen could well have been called Exile on Main Street. Others have already thought of that, but the idea is apt. As is the painful paradox, if you consider that while Tinariwen were criss-crossing the globe on their recent triumphant tours, the frontiers that encircle their desert home were closing and forcing them into exile to record their new album Elwan.
In recent years, Tinariwen’s homeland, a Saharan mountain range between north-eastern Mali and southern Algeria, has been transformed into a conflict zone. While the songs on the new record evoke those cherished deserts of home, they were recorded a long way away in two distinctive bursts.
In 2014 the band stopped at Rancho de la Luna studios in the desert of California’s Joshua Tree National Park. While location proved particularly propitious in terms of creativity, the human climate was just as favorable, as musicians dropped by to add their own touch. Guitarist Matt Sweeny (Johnny Cash, Bonnie Prince Billy and Cat Power), Kurt Vile, musician Alan Johannes, who produced Queens of the Stone Age, a band with whom Mark Lanegan, the other guest has been a singer. All of it honed by engineer Andrew Schepps, who has worked with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Johny Cash, and Jay Z. Two years later in M’Hamid El Ghizlane, an oasis in southern Morocco, near the Algerian frontier, the band set up their tents to record, accompanied by the local musical youth and a Ganga outfit (a group of Berber ‘gnawa’ trance musicians).
The resulting album is called Elwan (‘The Elephants’), not Exile On Main Street, though it fits nicely into that ‘road record’ category. In American cinema, a road movie always unfolds the same way. Characters travel in search of some truth or revelation. But they always end up reconnecting with their own past. Of course, it’s an impossible return, because that past has been erased. It’s the same for this record, so musically powerful and yet poignant: every song evokes a land that can no longer be found, with all that this implies in terms of emotional range, from nostalgia for a joyous past to the tragic recent loss of a territory, and of the dream that it nourished.