I have never been to Mali, my toes have only touched the edge of the mighty Sahara sands, and yet the connection to these Tuareg desert nomads was instantaneous and moving. The entire audience was transported to another world, where Tamashek is spoken and the pace of live is slower and more challenging. On this night, that was a great place to be.
Tinariwen, dressed in traditional robes that covered much of the face, opened the show with an a cappella chant accompanied on the by the faintest bass, percussion on calabash and hand claps. It was intense, and in many ways set the tone for the evening. Indeed, the music played during the 100-minute performance was heavy, passionate, moving, joyous, riveting, penetrating, hypnotic and uplifting -- often all at the same time. Songs typically began will a slow build, a deeply resonating guitar pattern that gradually grew in strength as the band joined in with multiple harmonies, hand claps, percussion and bass, adding complexity among the new layers.
When Tinariwen first made major musical waves in the United States in 2007, the group was often lumped into the "desert blues" category along with the likes of the well-known (at least somewhat known) Ali Farke Toure. While Toure's music was more a singular guitar style of leads over traditional Malian rhythms, Tinariwen piles on the little bits -- shouts, claps, second guitar lines, guttural bass -- that moves the music beyond such simple categorization. Yes, this music carries that bluesy edge, in part because the band formed as a means of protesting the Malian governments' repression of the Tuareg people, (and maybe because what we Americans call blues hails from West Africa, so we want/need to make that connection), but really this music is about celebrating life, even in the most difficult of times. It's time to drop the genrefication.
Songs from the most recent album, Emmaar, filled the early part of the show, warming up the crowd with some of the "mellower" acoustic material. Tracks from Tassili -- which won a 2012 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album -- Aman Iman and Imidiwan: Companions were interspersed the rest of the way.
As the night went on, the three principal singers and guitarists -- Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, Alhassane Ag Touhami, and Yad Abderrahmane (filling in for founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib who returned to Mali due to family matters) -- rotated to the center microphone. When not at center stage, each took a stool to offer vocal accompaniment and/or clapping. While the songs all played in the same form -- that slow build into fiery intensity -- each song took a distinctly different path depending on the songwriter. Guitar styles varied and set the pace, with Ag Alhousseyni often taking a more vibrant path, while Abderrahmane optimized small sliding patterns and revolving rhythms at a moderate pace, with these styles occasionally overlapping to great affect. Ag Touhami took the lead on just two tracks, yet his playing was masterfully, a sort of full finger strum and pick -- and at a stiff pace -- that made it feel as if a handful of guitars were backing him. (There was one full-time rhythm guitarist sitting behind these three.)
As the singing frequently matched the guitar, pitches and tempos rose and fell accordingly (another layer), creating, at times, haunting or floating affects that conjured up images of starless desert nights, or glorious sunrises over the dunes. So deeply transfixed, going to these places wasn't hard to do -- and more was wanted as each song closed.
I'm certain, judging by the crowd response -- and the number of people I saw swaying with eyes closed -- others felt the same thing. Few artists have this ability, and we should relish these moments when they occur.
English wasn't needed either, with Ag Alhousseyni chiding repeatedly, "It's OK?" This prompted pre-emptive strikes from audience members who shouted, "It's OK!" before he could ask. It was all good-natured, as was his comment that, "It's alright to dance." A few took him at his word and moved to the sides, but in the confines of a seated auditorium like the Musical Instrument Museums, one just doesn't dance among the seats -- or so it
Nevertheless, a truly magical moment occurred during the opening of the three-song encore as Ag Alhousseyni began solo on acoustic guitar. His haunting rhythmic style was soon overlapped with Abderrahmane's stingy electric guitar "shots." This interplay morphed into a call and response that grew in intensity as the band snuck back in and pushed the release over the top. Two tracks later, the six nomads took a final bow and left the stage. A warm buzz filled the auditorium. Maybe it was the desert heat from outside, though more likely it's that desert connection from one world to another.
Last Night: Tinariwen, Musical Instrument Museum
Personal Bias: Already a big fan of West African music, this was my fourth time seeing this band.
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Overheard: By a woman nearby, in whispered tones after one particularly intense song finished: "Mesmerizing."
Audience: Everyone's covered here, including a surprising number of children and a healthy showing of the college-aged set, many of whom were dancing on the sidelines.
Random Notebook Dump: "There has to be a rule at MIM that states, if an African band (really any band), says dancing is alright, then everyone should have to stand up and dance!"