The legendary Tuareg collective brings their spectacular Saharan drone blues to the mountains of the Mile-High City.
Tinariwen is one of the world’s most fascinating bands, and one of the best live bands currently working. They do a hypnotic and sinuous style of sahara drone blues called “assouf” among the Tuareg nomads that is exhilarating, spiritual and sensual at the same time and their mastery of the style was in evidence in their recent show at the Bluebird Theatre in Denver, Colorado.
Tinariwen’s music is hard to describe because it penetrates your consciousness from the inside out. It’s like being in the middle of a cloud while a storm is being born. The polyrhythmic, serpentine, trancelike tunes play out in subtle ways, and the more you try to focus on it and grab the music the more it slips through your fingers like trying to hold the wind in your hands.
When you hear Tinariwen live for the first time, you start by saying – “I don’t get it. This is weird and atonal. I don’t think I like it. The song structures sound wrong. I’m becoming vaguely uncomfortable”. But then once you let your subconscious take over, your brain locks in and gets it, and suddenly it’s the greatest music you’ve ever heard in your life.
If there had not been a Tinariwen, it’s clear that the world would have had to create one anyway, because it’s obvious that the world needs Tinariwen. How much of the Tinariwen experience is created by the band, and how much is created by the audience, is hard to know. Similarly, how much of the Tinariwen legend is true doesn’t even matter.
Their backstory has become so legendary that it’s impossible to know where the facts end and the legend begins. But as aptly stated in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
So here’s the story as far as I’ve read: founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, son of a Tuareg rebel living in Mali, learned to play guitar by making his own Instrument out of a tin can, a stick and bicycle brake wire. (Not even Jack White can match that!)
After Alhabib’s father was executed, he grew up in Algerian and Libyan refugee camps and gradually gravitated to playing traditional music such Moroccan chaabi protest music with his fellow refugees. People began to call the group “Kel Tinariwen”, which translates from Tamashek as “The Desert Boys”.
In the early 1980s, Alhabib and his companions, along with many other Tuareg living illegally in Libya, were conscripted or otherwise joined the Libyan army. In the mid-80s they joined the Tuareg rebel movement in Libya and started distributing homemade cassettes of their music, which apparently were popular underground protest symbols.
Around 1990, the group left Libya and returned to Alhabib’s native Mali village. About the same time, the Tuareg people of Mali revolted against the government, and some of Tinariwen became rebel fighters. After the peace accord was reached in 1991, Tinariwen shifted their full-time focus to music.
Tinariwen can’t seem to evade drama and unrest though, and most recently in 2013 during another Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali Tinariwen had to escape Mali when the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine denounced their music as contrary to Islamic values. Most of the members of Tinariwen escaped to the southwestern desert of the United States but guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida was imprisoned for an undocumented period, although he’s now back with the band.
Mali’s loss has been America’s serendipity, as Tinariwen recorded their well-received 2014 album Emmaar in the US and has been regularly touring the US for the last three years. I’ve gotten a chance to see them live five times in that time across four states, and their live shows are transcendent experiences.
Over the years the lineup has shifted quite a bit and become multi-generational. They truly are a collective, and whoever is in the troop at any particular time is “Tinariwen”. When I first became aware of Tinariwen in the early 2000s, the focus was on Alhabib, whose calm and noble demeanor on stage belied a quiet storm inside. He was a stoic counterpart to the other elder members, guitarist/singers Alhassane Ag Touhami and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, who when they are not singing or playing guitar clap their hands, dance and weave around the stage waving benedictions to the crowd.
On the most recent two shows I’ve seen, Alhabib has not been part of the group, supposedly he’s returned to Mali, but the shows carry on with Touhami and Lamida leading the band. The focus has shifted to the younger generation of players, including a gifted young guitarist and lead singer with matinee idol looks named Yad Abderrahmane playing hypnotic loops and elegantly spare solos, a bass virtuoso named Eyadou Ag Leche with skills on a level like Flea or Bootsy Collins, a percussionist named Said Ag Ayad playing a traditional gourd-style tinde drum and a mysterious shrouded guitarist who always stands at the back, doesn’t appear to sing and keeps the music grounded and pulsing by playing the drone parts.
Tinariwen are visually arresting to watch. They all dress in a color riot of traditional long-sleeved robes and headscarves, although from show to show various members take off the headscarves. Supposedly they used to always play scarved to avoid identity because their music was outlawed, but it hardly matters; it does add to the mystery of the music though.
The size of the band varies from six to ten members that constantly switch positions, guitars and mike positions from song to song, and although I’ve seen as many as five people playing guitar on some songs (!), usually it’s “only” two or three guitarists with the remainder doing background vocals or handclaps. Up to four of the members sing lead vocals depending on the song, while the rest provide a unison background vocal chorus.
They don’t seem to speak English but do speak French and don’t talk much to the crowd during a performance, but that’s fine because talking to the crowd would break the hypnotic trance mood. Since I obviously don’t speak Tamashek I don’t claim to understand the lyrics except the ones translated on the album jackets that typically seem to be either songs about the desert, water, life, ancestors, missing loved ones and other universal themes. It’s a tribute to their music that you don’t have to understand the words in order to think you have a deep understanding of the songs (even if that understanding is probably different to each person who listens to them).
The crowd mix at a Tinariwen show is nearly as interesting as the band. Tinariwen crowds are a wildly diverse mixture of ethnicity, age and style from world-beat music fans to alternative hipsters to aging blues guitarheads to (especially in Colorado) jam-band crunchies and pothea…err…recreational drug enthusiasts. Seeing all of these groups intermixing and dancing together without irony or self-awareness can’t help but bring a smile to your face.
I didn’t even attempt to keep a setlist from the Denver show, but below I’ve posted a couple of phone-videos I shot, including my favorite Tinariwen song “Toumast Tincha” along with their biggest “hit” in the states (“Tenere Taqqim Tossam” – “Jealous Desert”). The latter is a collaboration featuring Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone from TV On The Radio that is partially in English.
Tenere Taqqim Tossam is an amazing song, in that it starts in Tuareg and then shifts to English so subtly that the first time you hear it you think to yourself – “Damn, this music is inside my head so much that I’m starting to understand Tuareg!” Then you realize – oh, Adebimple/Malone are singing in English. Never mind.
The world is a big place filled with people you don’t know, songs you haven’t sung and stories that you haven’t heard. Tinariwen exists in this world, and the world is better because of it. You should not consider your life complete until you’ve seen them play.
Toumast Tincha, live in Denver, CO, USA at the Bluebird Theatre
Tenere Taqqim Tossam