Music moves. Mind-body binaries begin to melt away, hands form foreign structures in the air above heads, and blood begins to course through veins with a different weight. The Saharan sounds of African rock group Tinariwen manipulated us like the strings of their guitars at the UC Theatre last Saturday night.

A waypoint on the tour for their recent Elwan (2017), the show in Berkeley was a demonstration of the development of their sound since their last Bay Area performance. The band members are associated with the nomadic and politically marginalized Taureg groups of Mali and have spent the last several years away from their homelands, touring the world and recording music in Joshua Tree, California. Their music carries the spirit of the subtle complexity of the desert landscape and the life it supports.

On Saturday, these nomads basked in the warm glow of the chandeliers and the warm winds of their rising recognition in the American musical consciousness. Powerful, onerous invocations intermingled with uplifting hymns in an auditory tapestry that blanketed the room. New songs like “Tiwàyyen” and “Nizzagh IIjbal” flowed seamlessly into older tracks like “Cler Achel.” This ebb and flow of the strange and familiar induced a trance across the room. Welcome sounds met eager ears and invited deep contemplation, mental stillness, and everything in between.

Many songs would end with the innocent question, “It’s okay?,” as if the quantity of open-mouthed onlookers was not evidence enough to validate the sensational performance. They exuded humility despite the physical and artistic lengths they had traversed to captivate a crowd of astute artistic consumers. Tinariwen’s music spans genres and intentions, reimagining what it means to produce art for multiple purposes. It reminds us that cross-cultural communication is not limited to words or socially sanctioned actions.

I know that the word “Tinariwen” signifies “deserts” in Tamasheq, but I understand little of their lyrical intent beyond that one word. Their ability to convey meaning beyond language speaks to the power of music as a tool of communication, where feeling, movement, and emotion usurp reason, expression, and speech as the primary vehicles of storytelling. This was crystal clear as the unmistakable riffs of the final encore “Chaghaybou” picked up speed and burst through the room like golden rays. Energetic percussion joined with thunderous clapping, reminding all in the audience that, while not enough on its own, this physical gesture of recognition and willingness to participate in this creative process has the power to narrow divides between peoples and open borders, and ultimately build a truer “world music” scene.

Article and photos by Conner Smith 

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