I had seen Tinariwen twice before 2014. The first time I saw them was at Clearwater Festival, where the band was one of my highlights for the day, but may have be overlooked by those people who had parked their chairs in front of the stage and wandered off to return for later performances. The band’s faces were covered by their headdresses (tagelmusts) but their colorful robes matched well with the colorful tent. The second time I saw them was not long after, when the band performed for MTV at SOB’s in New York City. I forget how I got in, but tickets hadn’t been sold for the event, so the show didn’t draw in the public. My third time seeing them (fourth if you count the short free set at the Ace Hotel earlier this year but excluding the interview I did with Ag Alhousseyni earlier), was their March 24th show, their second night at Brooklyn Bowl. $20 tickets to see an amazing (there really isn’t any weight to adding Grammy-winning) desert band are hard to pass up and the first night had sold out. With less restrictions, these shows were accessible by true fans and, more importantly, by Tinariwen’s compatriots.
Given the political unrest in their home of Northern Mali, the Tuareg Tinariwen are in self-imposed exile. Tuareg supporters were in attendance on Monday, riled up by the spirited, political music from the band. A large contingent near the front of the stage were waving the traditional red marked, tri-color Berber flag above their heads. This likely displeased a lot of people who just wanted to watch, but I would imagine Tinariwen would have embraced this show of solidarity, one that is less likely to happen outside the cultural melting pot of New York. I do hope the Brooklynites whose cultural concert norms of claiming a spot where they could sway accepted any discomfort caused by the more-rowdy Tuareg-supporters and allowed them to revel in their own way, but I bet that wasn’t the case. Somehow, a musically-engaged stranger was encouraged to get on stage and play his cymbals along with the band (twice) and, towards the end, a flag-waver jumped onto the stage.
Musically, the show was a hypnotic mix of steely desert guitars, beguiling chants, vibrant bass, rhythmic percussion. It can be somewhat hard to distinguish the songs from each other given the continuous trance created by the music, but one does not want this trance to end. Tinariwen performed songs from their latest album Emmaar and their previous one, Tassili, amongst many others. When the band slowly returned to the stage following a break, Ag Alhousseyni started off the encore solo, with the other five members slowly returning to build up the magic of the finale and another opportunity for people to dance. A few songs later, Tinariwen broke the spell. Giving thanks to the crowd (one of their few known phrases in English), the band joined their hands and raised them up as they took a bow. The bright smiles on their faces were mirrored a hundred times over by the now-transcendent crowd.