Tinariwen comes to California this spring

[Editor’s note: this is the first posting from another new contributor, Culturebot’s dear friend Ellen Ratchye, live from Chicago! We’re expanding,  so watch out world!]

First things first – nobody needs a reason to go to Coachella, Santa Barbara or San Francisco in mid-April. If you do go, I promise a unique delight await.

Tinariwen is a multi-generational music collective from Mali, made up of members of the nomadic Tuareg people. Their music is a gorgeous hybrid of the blues & trance, served up with a jam band sensibility. I’ve seen them live once in Chicago & recently picked up a DVD of their London concert from the same 2007 tour. Both are unforgettable experiences, easily topping John Hiatt, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe & the Bad Plus among my all-time favorite live performances.

There is so much to savor – a cascade of sound that sets the whole audience moving, terrific guitar licks, a phenomenal drummer who conjures an entire kit out of one hand drum, hypnotic bass lines, slightly hoarse vocalists, haunting ululation…and that’s just the music.

You cannot take your eyes off these guys. The worn, mournful beauty of founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib doesn’t hurt (he is also the chief songwriter & vocalist) The burkha-clad back-up singers dance in the highest of all high heels, golden bracelets chiming with every step. Like Paul McCartney, the Tinariwen bassist plays left-handed, lending the group the same onstage symmetry as the Beatles. How many miles are on those elderly amps? How often do they get access to electricity at home beyond the paved roads?

All the men wear robes & head-coverings reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia. In his white robes, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni the second lead vocalist (and an equal partner in songwriting) is a dead ringer for Omar Sharif in 1962. The young drummer plays decked out in the black & white garb that is now synonymous with suicide bombers. Another weathered first generation member, Alhasane Ag Toumane, plays a beat-up cherry-red electric guitar when it suits him & otherwise sways & claps & kicks up his curled toe shoes. You know they’re flogging the desert thing for all it’s worth, but it’s still a feast.


Here’s their 2007 performance at Live 8:

They also have an incredible backstory. The group got its start in 1979 as founder Ag Alhabib was exiled first to Algeria & later to a Qaddafi-sponsored training camp in Libya where he prepared for his return to Mali.

Of course I like to imagine that Ag Alhabib got fed up one day out on the shooting range & threw down his AK-47, shouting “F*ck it, I want to be a rock & roll star!”, in an instant becoming the best examplar of the American Way the world has ever known. I know he learned to play the guitar before he got to the camp & formed the band with some friends while in exile in Algeria. I also know he was part of the long-awaited uprising of 1990 & that it did not turn out well for the Tuareg.

The man is a visionary & over the past 30 years has found a way to share the truth of his life & his people with the rest of the world. It’s a remarkable achievement given that the songs are written & performed in French & the Tuareg language Tamashek, and that the band members are more comfortable speaking French than English.

The songs capture Tuareg life since the South Saharan region was sliced into four nations in the 1960s – Mali, Niger, Algeria & Libya. The two major uprisings in Mali, in 1960 & 1990, frame Ag Alhabib’s life between the time his father was executed by Malian soldiers until he returned to his home country.

After years of distributing their music via what their manager Andy Morgan describes as a “cassette-to-cassette ghetto-blaster grapevine”, Tinariwen’s success in the West has come via the international festival circuit. They’ve anchored the increasingly influential Tuareg event Le Festival au Desert every year since its creation in 2001. They played at Glastonbury during the summer of 2007. In the summer of 2008 they opened for the Rolling Stones at the Irish festival Slane Castle. Chris Martin cites them as a significant influence on Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida”. Stay tuned…

It’s actually astounding to me that they were able to get visas to come to the US during their 2004 & 2007 tours. Their American booking agent assures me that luck had pretty much everything to do with it. I don’t doubt it & urge you to witness part of their improbable journey six weeks from now.

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