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Tinariwen’s ‘Elwan’ is a masterpiece of grassroots protest music

| Wednesday, March 22, 2017

In the context of many contentious global political events — including the so-called “Brexit” referendum and the United States’ presidential election — many celebrities have used their social capital as a galvanizing political tool by coming out in support or condemnation of various policies and individuals. It has been a busy time for musicians: Radiohead’s Thom Yorke called for British fans to vote to remain in the European Union; Katy Perry and Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike rallied for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, respectively.

Some artists have even produced politically-minded singles and records in the process, inspiring a revival of so-called “protest music” in the mainstream. But it is not always clear the extent to which mainstream artists are capitalizing on social unrest for their own gain. Some would cite Taylor Swift’s lukewarm political comments as an example of such dishonesty and pandering.

Yet, among the overwhelming static, there remain powerful voices whose very existence is an act of rebellion. Do you want to talk about real protest music? Look no further than the Malian alternative rock group Tinariwen.

The same band that has accumulated impressive credentials — winning numerous international awards for its music, touring worldwide with performances at festivals like Glastonbury and Coachella, representing its country in global events such as the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa and swelling its fanbase to include Bono, Chris Martin, Brian Eno and the aforementioned Thom Yorke — began its career in the late ’80s, producing amateur Arabic pop recordings on blank cassette tapes and performing at local weddings and parties.

But this is not merely the Malian edition of your favorite indie rock band’s origin story. Tinariwen’s members — who hail from various regions of North Africa — were inspired by traditional Moroccan music, which had been locally adapted for advocacy. Yet unlike so-called “armchair progressives,” these musicians had a significant stake in the outcome of their protest and indeed were physically involved in the defense of their artistic agency — and their lives.

In the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg people, the word “tinariwen” means “deserts.” The name is appropriate for a band whose members belong to that cohort of the Berber ethnic confederation, a transnational group that is limited less by national borders than by the wide expanse of the Sahara.

After living in exile across North Africa, joining the Libyan military under Muammar al-Gaddafi and fighting among the ranks of Tuareg nationalists seeking independence within Mali and Niger, the group has devoted its blossoming career to writing songs about the issues that the Tuareg face — in their native language, no less. Now that’s what I call socially-conscious music.

Aside from being thematically powerful, however, the musical content is airtight. Though they hail from a region that seems detached from Western contemporary alternative rock, Tinariwen’s latest record demonstrates the group’s inimitable talent of fusing traditional sounds with elements of popular music, creating songs that are widely accessible without sacrificing the group’s ethnic identity in the process.

In other words, while the lyricism is unintelligible to the uninitiated, there is plenty on “Elwan” to keep the listener coming back. The record generates intrigue, genuine appreciation and, yes, voracious addiction.

The record immediately excites on “Tiwayyen,” which layers funky guitar riffs and polyrhythmic grooves arranged using no more than handclaps and other homegrown percussion. Like the opening track, the record — though peppered with Western motifs — succeeds in transporting the listener to the desert. The band achieves this through the use of quarter-tone “maqam” scales, the melismatic vocal performances and even the occasional integration of the traditionally Moroccan “ahwash” musical aesthetic.

After “Tiwayyen,” the excitement never falters. The following track, “Sastanaqqam,” is one of the year’s best singles. “Sastanaqqam” boasts a visceral, mesmerizing groove and a relentlessly catchy chorus section that will — against all odds — force the listener to sing along.

Like few other records released within the last year — and certainly since the recent start of 2017 — Tinariwen’s “Elwan” defies further description, for its inspiring context and stunning production make it the kind of record that each must experience oneself. It’s a record truly deserving of universal recommendation.


Artist: Tinariwen

Album: “Elwan”

Label: Epitaph

Favorite Track: “Sastanaqqam,” “Hayati”

If you like: Mikael Seifu, Vampire Weekend, Googoosh

4/5 Shamrocks

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