Conjuring Saharan winds inside The Chapel Monday night, Mali’s Tinariwen (Tamasheq for deserts) delivered a synthesis of tribal African music and American blues that left devotees spellbound.
Belonging to the nomadic Taureg people of the northern Sahara region of Mali, Tinariwen have been active in resistance efforts and rebellions against the government of Mali (including the temporary formation of the state of Azawad) for decades.
After fleeing the enmity of radical Islam sects such as Ansar Dine seeking to purge their “satan music” from the land, Tinariwen (with the exception of lead singer and founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib) resettled in the southwestern United States where they released this year’s Emmaar and Inside / Outside: Joshua Tree Acoustic Sessions. With international acclaim from the likes of Thom Yorke and TV on the Radio and a Grammy in World Music for Tassili (2011), Tinariwen continue to fight for their people through music.
The intimacy of last night’s show was bizarre considering the scope of Tinariwen’s mission. Packing the tiny converted church, the band was unassuming in appearance, its members clad in mostly traditional Taureg garb. They began with a softer, acoustic piece that slowly swelled to consume the hearts of everyone in the room. After about three songs, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib entered, clad in all-white with a metal-plated guitar. His presence was that of a spiritual leader as he sang with depth and emotion, piercing the veil of Western apathy. Rebel yells were echoed by the audience and a roaring applause followed every song; the band radiated gratitude for this warm reception and the energy of the set increased.
A signature call-and-response song structure gave the feeling that one was part of a ceremonial procession, drawing audience members into the aura of spirituality and mysticism. Cultural appropriation aside, the band appeared eager to share their experiences with the largely white, affluent crowd and refused to let language barriers stifle artistic communication.
Tinariwen displayed incredible dynamics with a set stretching from an acoustic rendition of “Tiwàyyen” (Inside / Outside)to the high-energy, signature riff in “Chaghaybou” that elicited interjections of excitement from new fans.
“Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim” sent listeners into a trance with its slow, delayed beats, droning guitar progressions, and a steady clapping that remained throughout the show. This juxtaposition of deep trance, a blissful wonder with “Imidiwan Win Sahara,” and upbeat stimulation with “Amassakoul ‘N’ Ténéré” evoked an image of riding camelback over the sandy hills and through the lonely valleys of the sun-scorched Sahara desert.
After a bellowing demand for an encore — including a chorus of stomping feet — the band returned to the stage, closing with a haunting rendition of “Imidiwan Ma Tenem.” A cappella gang vocals during the chorus and enthusiastic clapping from the audience showed just how much music can be felt without knowledge of lyrical meaning.
Demonstrating the beauty of their homeland both visually and aurally, it is no wonder Tinariwen has earned the praise of the international music community. Far from a vast, lifeless expanse of rock and sand, these Tauregs depicted the color, emotion, vibrancy, and life force of the desert if one chooses to appreciate it.
An exemplar for musical protest, Tinariwen embodied what it means to be a refugee and a rebel with intense devotion to a cause that is reaching all corners of the globe.
Article and photos by Conner Smith