Thanks to the pioneering work of recently deceased master Ali Farka Touré and guitarist Boubacar Traoré, the haunting sounds of the West African nation of Mali have made their way to Europe and the West. Sometimes dubbed Desert Blues, Malian music as practiced by Touré clearly demonstrated the link between the Mississippi Delta and the Saharan sands. Tinariwen, a band of Tuareg (a nomadic people of the southern Sahara) trade in similar riffs and melodies.
Tinariwen’s tunes started as rebel music, the songs and stories of the exiled, the disenfranchised, the war-stricken nomads of postcolonial Mali. The band’s music was the voice of the resistance, a raised fist of radicalism shot through with spooky electric guitar, reverby fuzz, and mournful vocals. Certainly, most Westerners can’t understand Tinariwen’s lyrics, but the group’s rhythms and beats are instantly translatable. Tinariwen captures sounds, bluesy and psychedelic, with slinky electric guitars, group-chant harmonies, and infectiously danceable beats. Consciously or not, Tinariwen has culled bits and pieces of the Delta Blues, rock-steady reggae, Malian folk music, the trance-inducing sounds of Sufi mysticism, and psychedelic soul to create a sound rivaled by few in the field of world music.
Since the band’s breakthrough performance at the inaugural Festival in the Desert in 2001, Tinariwen’s star has been on the rise in the West. So, it should have been little surprise that the group packed the house at Martyr’s, a Chicago rock club on the city’s north side. More surprising was that the demographic of the audience—predominantly white and relatively young, mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings. Few Africans were in attendance, let alone anyone likely able to speak or understand the Tameshek language in which Tinariwen sing.
Cultural and lingual barriers faded quickly, however, as Tinariwen took the stage, the members dressed in flowing cerulean blue robes and head scarves. The crowed roared in anticipatory glee—either already aware of the musical magic yet to unfold or fascinated by the mystic unknown.
Tinariwen has in the past been composed of as many as nine musicians, singers, and dancers; tonight the band performed as a sextet comprised of various guitar players, a bassist, and a percussionist. Alhousseini Abdoulahi, spokesperson, singer, and guitarist, acted as the night’s emcee and announced regularly, using what little English he must know, “welcome to the desert”.
Tinariwen conjured the epic sweep of the desert with their trance-like guitar riffs, loping rhythms, and funky laconic beats. Abdoulahi’s acoustic guitar picking called on both the spirit of the dusty Delta blues and the resonant ring of West African pop. In concert, the acoustic guitar’s repetitive riffs became the hushed strums of a hypnotic electric guitar and the percussive slaps of the djembe drum and the simple but effective handclaps of the back-up singers. Though Tinariwen’s songs are simple and sparse arrangements built on a few swirling, recurring guitar lines, insistent drums, lubricious bass lines, and call-and-response chants, their groove is so insinuating the listener can’t help but become entranced.
African music is often known for its talking drums and the incredible sounds drummers make with various slaps, hits, and dampened thumps. For Tinariwen, though, it’s the guitars that seem to speak. Like Delta blues musicians, the guitarists of Tinariwen coax expressive sounds by thumbing the low bass strings and simultaneously picking and twanging the higher notes. Tinariwen proves that the twang is king—Fenders and Gibsons don’t need to scream, screech, or howl to create a music rich in meaning and passion. The guitar can float and swirl, can bend and sway, creating a beat to which even a crowd of white American rock fans can dance.
One doesn’t need to know that the song “Amassakoul ‘N’ Ténéré” is about being a traveler in the desert; one just needs to feel the hypnotic beat, the reggae-styled strum, the slinky bass, the chanky-chang of the acoustic guitar, the dead-on funk.. The Tuaregs even tossed in a funky, bluesy group rap where Abdoulahi rhymed and freestyled over a fist-pumping rhythm and rebel rock guitar riff.
No matter what you want to dub Tinariwen—desert blues, Saharan soul, Afro pop—their songs, sounds, and music are timeless. Tinariwen translate an innate and tangible feel for the joy of song and the tradition of the singer as storyteller and troubadour. Tinariwen’s brand of Malian music feels at once as old as the sands of the Sahara and as new as the modern sounds of the electric guitar. Their show is not soon forgotten. After all, how often do nomads in blue robes transfix rock fans with the shake, shimmy, sparkle, and swirl of African blues?