Tinariwen – [Live]

Thursday, 29 November 2007

“Is ok?” These were the first words from Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, who was clad in draping body wrap, a deep blue turban and the unlikely addition of a single cutaway Martin acoustic guitar. At this point the show had barely begun and the band had only completed two numbers with a stripped down accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, a muted electric rhythm guitar and a choked hand drum. Fans of Tinariwen’s recordings, a thirty-something crowd who filed in late to a very on-time concert Wednesday night, responded to the singer’s query somewhat nervously. Tinariwen’s records are a truly unique experience of meandering chants, untamed electric guitar ramblings, dark and heavy basslines and a hypnotic driving beat. At this point in the show, this was not exactly what had gone down.

But Tinariwen are no amateurs. A band who are deemed icons of freedom and resistance of the nomadic Touareg people of the Sahara desert, musicians whose songs express the pain of exile, the longing for lost homes and families, the struggle for political and cultural freedom and the rigors of everyday life in the desert, Tinariwen know how to work a crowd. Before long, Eyadou Ag Leche strapped on his electric bass, Hassan Ag Touhami wielded a sea-foam green Fender Stratocaster and Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s muted rhythmic chops gave way to vibey tight-wire leads on his Gibson Black-Beauty Les Paul. Percussionist Said Ag Ayad dug harder into his resonant drum and at last, the deep grooves were underway.

Tinariwen’s choice of instruments is just one of the many enigmas that shroud this band in mystery. The way that the bass player uses an upside down right handed bass, still strung backwards to accommodate his left handed playing style reveals that western electric instruments must have been hard to come by in the Colonel Gaddafi-led camps where the band was formed. It makes Alhabib’s pearl inlayed Les Paul, a guitar he uses to broadcast his own invented Tamashek style, seem a bit more profound than a guitar bought at the local Guitar Center.

It is impossible to imagine what it must be like for this group to play at the Highline Ballroom on Manhattan’s west side, thousands of miles away from the desert landscape that informs every nuance of their music. On a New York nightclub stage five men dressed in desert nomad wear, full turbans with a scant opening for eyes, contrast greatly against the scores of white middle-class music fanatics at the band’s feet. But after three crowd incited encores to follow up an unforgettable set of music, one thing was certain: If you closed your eyes and knew nothing about Tinariwen’s past, their unadorned style would come right through their raw, affecting and transcendent music. So once the evening got rolling, when Alhousseyni asked “Is ok?” for the fourth time, he and everyone else knew instinctively that the answer was an emphatic “yes!”

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