When the Desert meets the Blues: Tinariwen

What do you get when you mix electric guitars with the sound of indigenous Touareg music made by guitar poets and soul rebels from the Sahara desert? The answer is Tinariwen, a band that was founded in the 1980s by nomadic Touareg musicians/rebel fighters from the Southern Sahara Desert in Mali. Yes, at one point in their lives, some of the band members used firearms to defend their people, but these days they use guitars to express their aspirations, and they do it superbly. The band stopped by in Chicago last Friday for a live performance at Metro to promote their fifth album titled Tassili. A musician friend of mine told me about their music and how great they were so I knew they were going to be good, but I did not expect them to be amazing.These guys are super talented. Friday’s concert was my first encounter with their music but it certainly won’t be the last: I am hooked.

The guys from Tinariwen took the stage wearing clothes “à la Touareg”: loose-fitting robes with veils covering their heads and hair, some even with their faces covered. The only one who did not was Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the lead guitar player and founder of the band. Tinariwen means “the Deserts” in Tamashek (the language of the Touareg), and like their name, their music has some of the qualities associated with a desert: it is mysterious, hypnotic, and invites you to fall into a trance-like state. Their psychedelic sound is dominated by electric guitar and bass mixed with traditional percussion instruments. Some people call it Desert Blues. For their new album though, they opted for acoustic sounds, so an acoustic guitar was also part of the mix. The guitars played a preponderant role during the concert, but the bass and the percussion players stole the show at many points. Those guys are monsters! Complementing the talent of the guitar, bass, and percussion players, was the singing in Tamashek that felt at times like mantras for meditation, and the undulating dance movements of one of the band members. His dance reminded me of the movements of sand dunes in a desert. The crowd (including myself) could not help but fall under their spell.

The use of modern electric guitars to play traditional Tuareg music along with their enormous talent are probably why Tinariwen’s music resonates so well with Western audiences. But seeing them perform live, I can also say that part of their success is due to how well they connect with their audience during live shows.The way they do it is elegant. The band members established musical dialogues with each other and with the audience so effortlessly and smoothly that it gave the impression that they were jamming among friends instead of being on stage. This was coolness at its best.   And people responded to it. The crowd that came to see them at Metro was very enthusiastic. I saw a young woman moving frenetically to the rhythm of their music throughout the entire concert. On the other side of the theater, and probably two generations apart, an older lady in her sixties was stomping and screaming, asking for the band to do a third encore, which they generously did. There was also a three-year old boy being carried by her young dad saying enthusiastically: “Tinariwen is playing!” The band has definitely crossed generational and cultural barriers with their music.

This was the second time they performed in Chicago this year, and after attending their concert this last Friday, one can understand why they would come two times the same year: it is a love relationship. The crowd fed the band with an incredible energy, and in return, they played three encores and said “I love Chicago!” at various occasions during the show. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of being exposed to their music, you should fix that a.s.a.p. Here is a sample of their music:

(Visited 2 times, 1 visits today)