I had been lucky enough to see Tinariwen last year at Islington Assembly Hall, and have ever since known I would see them at every possible opportunity. All Tinariwens albums seemed to have captured the ears of nearly the whole world (be it 22 years after the original formation of the band), taking huge critical acclaim, the last two albums have been listed in Songlines Magazines top albums of 2016 AND 2017 (so far), as well as their ‘Top 25 Mali Albums’. It is no surprise that both the bands dates in London sold out way before the actual concerts. Last year Tinariwen played 42 gigs over the space of nine months, and have come back this year with an immense tour of 48 gigs strong, in the space of just three months. It certainly seems that this was the hot ticket in town to have.
I arrived at the fabulous Electric Brixton half way through the opening act ‘Dengue Fever’ who were serving up delightful, danceable tracks reminding me some what of psychedelic folk music. Although they were a great act, they finished their set with very little drama, and made way for the main performance. I just managed to get a good standing space before the crowd thickened to the point of that ‘sardine’ like audience we all know too well. The lights set on the stage were actually rather beautiful, with light yellows, oranges and reds, combined with blue hues, the scene was set for a Saharan adventure.
I had done a little reading on Tinariwen before this concert in order to understand further their backgrounds and origins, normally I wouldn’t go in to such depth with the background of a band, however once I had opened pandoras box, it seemed prudent to re-tell at least the highlights of the colourful background that seems so ‘worlds away’ and alien to ironically the majority of Tinariwens listeners. So forgive me, but I shall now indulge into a little background of the band in order to better understand the importance of their performance.
Known by many as the ‘godfathers’ of ‘Sub-saharan Blues’, the members hail from the Sahara Desert in Northern Mali, however have all lived in various other places, due to being repeatedly displaced. They are known as the ‘rock’n’roll rebels’ or ‘the true rebels’ having been forced to live in exile and live life as a refugees. The members of Tinariwen are all Tuareg people. The Tuareg people live primarily in the Saharan desert stretching over all North Africa, they are also from a Berber community. The backgrounds to these musicians, unfortunately see’s atrocious acts of war and violence.
The leader of the band Ibrahim Ag Alhabib formed Tinariwen back in 1979, and has since come so far with the music that most familiarises ‘Desert-Blues’ to western ears. Ag Alhabib is said to have made his first guitar from merely a tin can, a stick and a bicycle brake wire; as all good rock’n’roll blues tales do. Ag Alhabib then met Alhassane Ag Touhami and brothers Inteyeden Ag Ablil and Liya Ag Ablil in the late 1970’s. They together explored ‘protest’ musics and ‘rebel’ musics against uprisings, they were here known as ‘The Desert Boys’ or ‘Kel Tinariwen’. From there, they then completed the line-up, by meeting Keddou Ag Ossade, Mohammed Ag Itlale, Sweiloum, Abouhadid, and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni at a nine-month army training enlistment.
Tinariwen then built a makeshift studio, and vowed to record music for free, to anyone who could supply them with blank cassette tapes. For the next twenty years, the resulting tapes were traded widely throughout the Sahara region, using the trading routes that the Bermer Tuareg people have been using for centuries. They since have been recording tracks that bring to light the issues and the political injustices brought to the Tuareg people, thus making them ‘rebel musicians’ in the eyes of the oppressor. Furthermore, in 1990, the Tuareg people rose up in revolt against the Malian government, and consequently members of Tinariwen were enlisted and fought as rebels against the oppressive regime.
Sadly the story doesn’t lighten from there, although adorning global success, after their fifth album ‘Tassili’ won Best World Music Album at the Grammy Awards in 2012, the band were displaced once again from their home region of Northern Mali, and furthermore, their guitarist Abdallah ag Lamida was actually abducted by Islamist militants. The extremities that this band have had to fight constantly against in order to continue playing their music is in a very real sense dangerous for them. It is for this reason, among others, that their music can be described as a ‘revolutionary language’.
This discomfort is so far fetched to the western listener, whilst Tinariwen have been playing their version of the guitar led ‘Assouf’ music of their people, their songs that have been endangering their lives in order to raise awareness of inhuman treatments. Unable to understand the lyrics, for many of us, Tinariwen is simply an introduction to desert blues music, but beneath is so very much more.
This is why, as I stood there waiting for Tinariwen to join the stage, I became overwhelmed with a grateful feeling, that I get to see these physical and political warriors perform their brave, innovative music live, in the flesh.
Not only have their albums brought an entire genre of music into the lime-light, they have been received with such popularity, it’s as though they have created a whole new sound that we can just not get enough off.
As they took to the stage, they opened with a mellow, tone-setting tune, after which joining and completing the line-up, came Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. A raucous applause swept through the venue, a far longer applause than average, and continued into their set. They from there played nearly (as far as I could tell) all the songs from their latest two albums, keeping the tone and energy flowing from song to song.
Visually the band looked amazing, in their traditional cloths of the Tuareg people, with the lights reflecting that desert aesthetic, one could almost feel transported to the funky mellow vibes of the desert. Each member of the band had a chance to show off their individual skills, each taking a turn to lead guitar and vocals. The overall sound I found also had been mixed to a quieter level than usual for such a venue. I wondered if this was a thoughtful move from the band; as the result was a smoothing wave of constant music.
They seamlessly played for two hours working each track perfectly with one another, keeping an absolute consistent groove throughout. Their energy was infectious, consequently an accompanying rhythmic ‘clap’ could be heard from the audience for near on the whole gig. Also I noticed many people attempting to dance as the Tinariwen members dances. For a thicker description on the dancing, I would suggest watching some live footage of the band, perhaps from their appearance at ‘Womad’ Festival (2015).
Overall, the energy, the visuals and most importantly the deep, crisp perfected sound of their music made for an unforgettable performance. I left the venue feeling humbled, and ecstatic at the evening I felt honoured to have been apart off.
All Tinariwen music can be found on all platforms, and remaining tour dates can be found on their website. Don’t hesitate to snap a ticket up if you get the chance!