Music as Language: Tinariwen's "Elwan" Review

By Jessica Murray, Contributing Writer


Music has historically been used to convey art, culture and religion.  World music is especially important to listen to, for it gives cultures, ethnicities and countries a voice, a wavelength for a means of representation. Listening to another cultures music initially acclimates one to the language it-self. Hearing these languages through such a medium evokes an-other understanding for a groups sense of identity, helping those who are not part of the groups better understand the culture.

Tinariwen is a band formed in 1979 from Mali, a country in the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa, and are currently active in re-cording and playing music. Tinariwen has always been a collective of singers, songwriters and musicians who come together in differ-ent combinations due to the nomadic lifestyle of the Tuareg people. Their music fuses traditional Islamic mantra in the Tamasheq language —known only among Tuareg Muslim people who were historically influential in the spread of Islam in Northern Africa, using contemporary electric instruments.   Tamasheq is similar sounding to Arabic. The band’s name translates to “The People of the Desert” or “The Desert Boys” in their native language. Tinariwen has been called “music’s true rebels” by NPR and  “the grassroots voice of rebellion” by AllMusic.  

“Elwan,” the band’s seventh album, was released earlier this year. The music relates to life in the Sahara Desert, a scenery not far foreign from that of the Mojave Desert in Southern California, with album motifs including romance, civil rights and life changes. Among other influences, Tinariwen draws inspiration from American artists such as Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley though Tinariwen’s style has its roots in West African music.

While some refer to the band members as rebels, the phrase is not used just as a commodity. In 1990, the Tuareg people of Mali revolted against the government, under then-ruler Gaddafi. Some of the members of the band joined as rebel fighters.

In 2012, a militant Islamist party denounced the presence of popular music in Mail, targeting the band specifically during this campaign. In a showdown in 2013, most of the band members escaped capture, all except one who was later released and returned safely with the rest of the members.

While most have never heard of Tinariwen, their resume is quite extensive, having won a Grammy award in 2012 for Best World Music Album for their fifth studio album, “Tassil.” Additionally, the band represented Algeria in the FIFA World Cup in South Af-rica in 2010 and before that, Tinariwen performed at the world renowned WOMAD, World of Music, Arts and Dance, festival in 2001, gaining the group attention overseas and allowing them the opportunity to perform in the United Kingdom in 2004.

Upcoming shows from Tinariwen will be October 28 at The Growlers Six festival, after which they will leave for tour in China and France.