Weird Live Review: Tinariwen

Tinariwen

I’ve been a huge fan of the Tuareg nomad group Tinariwen ever since somebody put a copy of the album Aman Iman: Water Is Life in my hands about seven years ago. Their fusion of American-style psych-rock guitar with the loping grooves of West African folk music was mesmerizing; the layered guitars seemed to swirl around each other like dust devils, evoking the vastness of the Saharan Desert and the heartache of life in a war-torn part of the world.

Tinariwen tours often enough now that I’ve had many opportunities to see them, but somehow I never quite got around to it. I think part of me was afraid their live show couldn’t possibly live up to my mental image of the band, way out there in deserts of northern Mali, jamming far into the night around a campfire on a stolen generator.

Well, there was no desert sky or campfire at the Belasco Theater, a new/old venue in downtown Los Angeles that recently reopened after a major renovation. But the stately old Gothic/Spanish theater, a former burlesque house opened in 1926, was a surprisingly fitting place to experience Tinariwen’s music, which has its own kind of grandeur and sense of history to it.

Tinariwen has been around long enough that their de facto leader, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, is too old to tour. But the rest of the band’s core remains intact, and their newest member, a handsome young dude named Sadam Iyar Imarhan, ably fills in Ag Alhabib’s guitar parts and many of his vocals. At the Belasco, he shared guitar and vocal duties with veteran members Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni and Alhassane Ag Touhami, while younger Tinariweners Elaga Ag Hamid, Eyadou Ag Leche and Said Ag Ayad backed them up on rhythm guitar, bass and percussion, respectively.

I had expected to hear layers upon layers of interlocking guitars, but to my surprise, the “frontmen” mainly took turns, each singing lead vocals and playing lead guitar for a song or two while the others stood to the side and sang backup vocals (or, in the case of the charismatic Ag Touhami, danced his ass off). At first, this disappointed me a little—I wanted a guitar army! A Phil Spector of the Sahara wall of sound! But I quickly realized that each player’s leads were so intricate that they would have been lost in more complex arrangements. All of them play beautifully, but I was especially entranced by new member Imarhan, who adds a little rock ‘n’ roll to the band’s mesmerizing sound. There were a few times where he and bassist Ag Leche (who plays a Fender bass upside down and left-handed, like a badass) locked grooves and I thought the mostly mellow crowd was going to start freaking out like they were at a My Morning Jacket concert.

The Belasco has great sightlines, so I was able to wander around and get some decent photos from nearly every angle. Obviously, in their traditional robes and turbans, Tinariwen are a visually arresting band, but watching them live, you forget about their appearance pretty quickly. What you’re left with is the music, which is some of the most hypnotic you’ll hear from any part of the world.

Tinariwen recorded their latest album, Emmaar, not far from L.A. in Joshua Tree. They’re actually back there tonight at a little desert nightclub called Pappy and Harriet’s. Now that must be an amazing place to see them. Maybe next time.

The rest of Tinariwen’s 2014 tour dates are listed after the photos. Whether or not you’re a fan of so-called “world music,” I highly recommend checking them out. I know we say this a lot of this blog, but there is truly no one else like them.

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Tinariwen 2014 world tour:

21 APRIL 2014 – PHOENIX (AZ), US : MIM MUSIC THEATER
22 APRIL 2014 – EL PRADO (NM), US : TAOS MESA BREWING
24 APRIL 2014 – NEW ORLEANS (LA), US : HOUSE OF BLUES
25 APRIL 2014 – LAFAYETTE (LA), US : FESTIVAL INTERNATIONAL DE LOUISIANE
26 APRIL 2014 – LAFAYETTE (LA), US : FESTIVAL INTERNATIONAL DE LOUISIANE
29 APRIL 2014 – CRETEIL, FRANCE : MAISON DES ARTS DE CRETEIL
30 APRIL 2014 – LUXEMBOURG, LUXEMBOURG : ROCKHAL

03 MAY 2014 – CHELTENHAM, UK : CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL
04 MAY 2014 – BELFAST, UK : MARQUEE FEST, CUSTOM HOUSE SQUARE
05 MAY 2014 – BRISTOL, UK : ST GEORGE’S
06 MAY 2014 – LEEDS, UK : OPERA NORTH
10 MAY 2014 – UMEA, SWEDEN : MADE FESTIVAL

27 JUNE 2014 – GLASTONBURY, UK : GLASTONBURY FESTIVAL
28 JUNE 2014 – CORK, IRELAND : CORK OPERA HOUSE
29 JUNE 2014 – WESTPORT, IRELAND : WESTPORT FESTIVAL

01 JULY 2014 – DUBLIN, IRELAND : NATIONAL CONCERT HALL
03 JULY 2014 – SAINT ETIENNE, FRANCE : FESTIVAL DES 7 COLLINES
04 JULY 2014 – AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS : PITCH FESTIVAL
11 JULY 2014 – BARCELONA, SPAIN : CRUÏLLA BARCELONA
12 JULY 2014 – AIX-LES-BAINS, FRANCE : MUSILAC
18 JULY 2014 – CARHAIX, FRANCE : LES VIEILLES CHARRUES
19 JULY 2014 – SOUTHWOLD, UK : LATITUDE FESTIVAL
23 JULY 2014 – BRECON, UK : THEATR BRYCHEINIOG
24 JULY 2014 – CARDIFF, UK : SAINT DAVID’S HALL
29 JULY 2014 – WESPORT, UK : WESTPORT FESTIVAL

01 AUGUST 2014 – SAINT-NAZAIRE, FRANCE : LES ESCALES
07 AUGUST 2014 – GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN : WAY OUT FESTIVAL
08 AUGUST 2014 – HELSINKI, FINLAND : FLOW FESTIVAL
09 AUGUST 2014 – NR. WINCHESTER, UK : BOOMTOWN FESTIVAL
13 AUGUST 2014 – FRAISANS, FRANCE : NO LOGO FESTIVAL
15 AUGUST 2014 – ESCOT PARK DEVON, UK : BEAUTIFUL DAYS FESTIVAL
16 AUGUST 2014 – TRUYES, FRANCE : FESTIVAL COSMOPOLITE
23 AUGUST 2014 – CHARLEVILLE-MÉZIÈRES, FRANCE : CABARET VERT
24 AUGUST 2014 – SAINT-CLOUD, FRANCE : ROCK EN SEINE
30 AUGUST 2014 – NAMUR, BELGIUM : LA FÊTE DES SOLIDARITÉS
31 AUGUST 2014 – NR. SALISBURY, UK : END OF THE ROAD FESTIVAL

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Tinariwen

Ever since Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel started raiding Africa for new musical ideas, it’s been well-known that the so-called “Dark Continent” is fertile ground when it comes to cool new/old sounds. In any number of African nations, traditional folk music has been cross-bred with Western instruments and playing styles (many of which, like blues, funk and even rock, descended from African music in the first place) to produce all kinds of nifty results: Congolese soukous, Senegalese mbalax, South African mbaqanga and township jive. Now Fela Kuti is the subject of a Broadway musical and even Jake owns a djembe that he occasionally hauls down to the Venice beach drum circle in hopes of meeting hippie chicks. African music has pretty much been demystified and commercialized. Right?

Well, not so fast. Even though they’ve played everywhere from the Hollywood Bowl to the World Cup opening ceremonies, Tinariwen remains something of an enigma: a group of nationless Tuareg nomads with electric guitars, still plying their trance-like, otherworldly music on portable generators out in the Sahara Desert somewhere in Mali, or Algeria, or possibly Niger. They’ve been at since the late ’70s and have been reaching Western audiences for nearly a decade, but even now, the typical response from anyone hearing their music for the first time is: “Holy shit! What is this stuff?”

The band’s story is a long and fascinating one, and the full version can be read on their MySpace page, so we won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that Tinariwen is a collective of like-minded musicians, poets and freedom fighters (in the ’80s, most of the band took a break from music to receive military training in Libya, then used their newfound fighting skills to take part in a Tuareg uprising against the Mali government in the early ’90s). For years, their music was the soundtrack of the Tuareg rebellion, and the musicians had to keep their identities secret, shrouding their faces behind cheches at performances and circulating their music on bootlegged cassette tapes. After the rebellion finally ended, Tinariwen came out of hiding and eventually caught the ear of some French world musicians called Lo’Jo, who invited them to perform in Europe—and pretty soon, word about the electric nomads and their dusty “desert blues” was out.

These days, Tinariwen is still led by the group’s founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, along with a core group of singers and musicians who sport fanciful nicknames like “Le Lion du Desert” and “Japanois” (French being the official language of Mali and Niger, it’s the unofficial second language of the Tuareg). But in the words of one chronicler of the band’s history, “They are more of a social movement than a desert rock ‘n’ roll band.” It is said that so many of the Tuareg have jammed with Tinariwen at one time or another that on any given night in the southern Sahara, half a dozen Tinariwen concerts are probably taking place—even while Ag Alhabib and some incarnation of the band is off touring the European festival circuit.

If you extend the notion that anyone who has played with Tinariwen is essentially a member of Tinariwen, their circle gets even larger: at this point, the band has performed with everyone from Carlos Santana to Robert Plant to one of our favorites here at TWBITW, the very Tinariwen-inspired Fool’s Gold. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Tinariwen has gotten around a lot over the last five years or so—these guys are nomads, after all.

One last detail, and then we’ll leave you with this clip from a documentary about the band. Tinariwen literally translates to “The Deserts,” which is what the Tuareg call the land they live on (they see the Sahara as several discreet deserts, not just one large one). And the style of music they play is often called “assouf,” a word that connotes loneliness, homesickness, and heartache—what American musicians might call “the blues.” It’s a great word to describe an amazing, haunting, truly unique form of music—the kind of music only Africa could have invented, but which speaks to all of us. (We don’t often wax grandiose here at TWBITW, but these guys do that to us.)

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