Tinariwen paid a visit to Brooklyn's Bell House this past February.
Having grown up in refugee camps buried in the deeper Saharan parts of Mali and then come of age during a rebellious uprising by their fellow Toureg tribesmen in the 90's, Tinariwen could have hard-knock street cred by the bushel--if they had any use for such things. They don't. Instead their songs are excellent, joyous extended jams with one chord (and it's a major chord, natch) and what I'd bet would prove to be soaring celebratory vocals, if I could understand them. It's quite unfortunate that they get filed away, and often subsequently ignored as "world music"; the flavors are West African enough, plucked strings and hand drums and so on, but the mission is solidly rock 'n' roll, with guitars and most everything else turned up as loud as they'll go. (To be fair to the pigeonholers, the African garb and outlandish headdresses are a pretty substantial red herring on this front.)
Also in attendance: white boy Afropop fusion hotshots Fool's Gold, who have a very competent Talking Heads sheen to their craft which I refuse to disrespect here with a Vampire Weekend paragraph. (You're welcome.) The brief collaboration between the two proves suitably majestic. Melodies launching into the stratosphere, or at least crashing dramatically into the ceiling, and the many parallels make it seem even less surprising that a Malian act popular in the West would be defined by blistering rock more than exotic folk forms--even though you'd have to look pretty hard to find other bands that do the same.
So if Tinariwen wants to take something back from the white folks here, they have my blessing: they've already paid their dues, rock 'n' roll is awesome and totally worth swiping, and there's been a fair amount of such co-opting over the centuries already anyway (including, some might argue in much longer PopMatters pieces than this, the blues roots of the very same rock music in question now). I live in Brooklyn, wear plaid, and peck these concert notes into an iPhone, so I'm hardly presumptuous enough to think that all the struggle, conflict, and cross-cultural confusion was worth it in the end simply because it has produced music this brilliant, moving, and precious. But, you know, maybe.
Photos by Stephanie Keith