I couldn't understand a word Tinariwen were singing Monday night at Crescent Ballroom. I didn't know a single song, and there was no set list to cheat from -- and I couldn't find anyone to ask about it.
But I was completely blown away by the deep, rhythmic, heartfelt pulse of a music that draws from desert environs of northern Mali as well as the hardship and disenfranchisement the Tuareg have faced at the hands of the Malian government.
Some people call this music "desert blues," and there's some validity to the comparison, given the circumstances of the Tuareg and the bluesy feel of some of their slower guitar leads. But the reality is that this is also spiritual music, a blessed release and outpouring from the soul. Watching the band members' movements as they played -- or danced, as one of the vocalists did almost constantly -- it was clear the music was coming from inside.
So what did they play? Again: I don't know, exactly. But the sixth, eighth, and 11th songs, plus the second song of the encore, were simply mind-melting psychedelic desert gems. Lots of Malian music from the 1970s features rhythmic excursions into funk and soul, with outrageous guitar leads.
These songs touched on those familiar (for me) 1970s Afro psych wonders. It was a beautiful thing to hear: Wild guitar leads breaking down into heavy rhythmic patterns, before going off again while the rest of the band -- bass, djembe or calabash, second guitar, and harmonizing vocals -- pushed the pace to frenetic heights.
The drummer and bassist were incredibly locked in at those moments, driving the bottom end and tempo and practically forcing the good-size audience to dance throughout the 80-minute show. A cool side note: When the drummer switched to the calabash, he used Bic lighters as percussive tools.
Ballads, many with call-and-response vocals and indigenous rhythms, tempered the show and created a nice mixing of styles and ideas. Band members traded off instruments and vocal leads, each adding his own distinctive compositional style to the mix.
Dressed in traditional desert robes and headgear that left only their eyes and noses exposed, Tinariwen is an imposing sight. But once the songs begin, clothing is the last thing that matters -- what matters is this earthy, hypnotic music from these wandering desert souls, which will never be found elsewhere.
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Now that the show's over, I understand that the fact that I don't know what was played, recognized nothing from the band's several albums, and couldn't translate -- or even guess -- a single lyric really means nothing. Music is its own language, and when it's right, it's easy to understand everything. On this night, I, and many others in attendance, understood completely.
Last Night: The Malian Tuareg nomads Tinariwen
Translation: In Tamashek, "Tinariwen" means desert.
Personal bias: Moving music moves me, and I move to see this band whenever they are within 114 miles of me -- I drove to Tucson to see them in 2011.
The crowd: Returned Peace Corp volunteers and potential recruits (you can tell by their lack of fashion sense), hipsters hoping to hear the song that featured TV on the Radio members, and a handful of Africans.
Random notebook dump: "That psychedelic guitar overload is absolutely insane -- and it's not enough . . . help!"
Overheard: From a woman in the crowd gesturing at a group of younger attendees: "My mom always told me not to wear stripes and patterns. You can tell those guys just got out of the Peace Corps."