When the Desert meets the Blues: Tinariwen in Concert

What do you get when you mix electric guitars with the sound of indigenous Touareg music made by guitar poets and soul rebels from the Sahara desert? The answer is Tinariwen, a band that was founded in the 1980s by nomadic Touareg musicians/rebel fighters from the Southern Sahara Desert in Mali. Yes, at one point in their lives, some of the band members used firearms to defend their people, but these days they use guitars to express their aspirations, and they do it superbly. The band stopped by in Chicago last Friday for a live performance at Metro and to promote their fifth album titled Tassili. A musician friend of mine told me about their music and how great they were, so I knew they were going to be good, but I did not expect them to be amazing.These guys are super talented. Friday concert was my first encounter with their music but it certainly won’t be the last: I am hooked.

The guys from Tinariwen took the stage wearing clothes “à la Touareg”: loose-fitting robes and except for Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the lead guitar and founder of the band, they had veils covering their heads and hair, some even with their faces covered. Tinariwen means “the Deserts” in Tamashek (the language of the Touareg), and like their name, their music has some of the qualities associated with a dessert: it is mysterious, hypnotic, undulating, inviting you to fall into a trance-like state. Their psychedelic sound is dominated by electric guitar and bass playing mixed with traditional percussion instruments. Some people call it Desert Blues. For their new album though, they opted for acoustic sounds, so an acoustic guitar was also part of the mix. The guitars played a preponderant role during the concert, but the bass and the percussion players stole the show at many points. Those guys are monsters! Complementing the talent of the guitar, bass, and percussion players was the singing in Tamashek that felt at times like mantras for meditation, and the undulating dance movements of one of the band members. His movements reminded me of the movements of the sand dunes in a desert. The crowd (including myself) could not help but fall under their spell.

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The use of modern electric guitars to play traditional Tuareg music along with their enormous talent are probably the reasons why Tinariwen’s music resonates so well with Western audiences. But seeing them perform live, I can also say that part of their success is due to how well they connect with their audience during live shows.The way they do it is elegant. The band members established musical dialogues with each other and with the audience so effortlessly and smoothly, that it gave the impression that they were jamming among friends instead of being on stage. This was coolness at its best.   And people responded to this. The crowd that came to see them at Metro was very enthusiastic. I saw a young woman moving frenetically to the rhythm of their music throughout the entire concert. On the other side of the theater, and probably two generations apart, an older lady in her sixties was stomping and screaming, asking for the band to do a third encore, which they generously did. There was also a three-year old boy being carried by her young dad saying enthusiastically: Tinariwen is playing! The band has definitely crossed generational and cultural barriers with their music.

This was the second time they performed in Chicago this year, and after attending their concert this last Friday, I can understand why they would come two times the same year: it is a love relationship. The crowd fed the band with an incredible energy, and in return, they played three encores and shouted “I love Chicago!” in various occasions during the show. For those of you who have not had the pleasure to hear their music, you should fix that a.s.a.p. Here is a sample of it:

11 Replies to “When the Desert meets the Blues: Tinariwen in Concert”

  1. Hey
    Nice piece on Tinariwen! I was supposed to make it to Metro for their gig but wasn’t able to. Did see them several months ago their last time in Chicago at the Old Town School of Folk Music — probably a better show at Metro!! Even tho I’ve been involved in the world music scene for a long time, I didn’t know about them until a few yrs ago. Happened to be in Marrakech for a few days & took a day trip to a coastal town in Morocco called Essaouira. I was walking through the market, passing by a music stall & this guy was playing Amassakoul, title track from that cd. Had to find out who it was so I asked him who it was & then bought the cd. They’re pretty incredible, thanks for posting & the pics!
    I also listen to a lot of latin & Brazillian music, have you ever checked out Los Fabulosos Cadillacs — ska punk band from Argentina? Saw them a yr ago at the Congress & they rocked. Thanks again for putting this up.
    –Marc (Chicago)

    1. Thanks Marc! Yes, these guys are amazing, especially during live shows. By the way, nice way to find out about this group! Wish I could have an interesting story to share with you, but I don’t. I found out about them by word of mouth.
      So you know about Fabulosos Cadillac? I love that group! I went to the see them at Congress Theater too, and yes, they were fabulous.
      If you like Brazilian music, I am sure you know about Brazilian Tuesday Nights at Barra Enye, right? If you don’t, I would recommend heading over there as soon as you can. 🙂

  2. Hey Claudia
    I know Enye, usually go in there to eat (excellent food, btw) & the music in there is always spot on. I haven’t gotten there on Tuesdays yet for the later Barzillian stuff but I should, thanks for the heads up. I always love what they spin in there & their mojitos in the summer go down perfectly!

    You’ve got some great links I need to follow up on. For some reason, I’m currently stuck on listening to a lot of Bhangra & Punjabi dance mix stuff. Gets all over the place after awhile…

  3. Thanks for the link, probably won’t be able to make the NYE but the site has some great links to other Bhangra sets around town and will be perfect for getting to the next one!


    1. That’s great news, really happy for them, glad to see them begin to get more widely known. All those guys have had pretty rough lives over the years & their music is still pure. Just downloaded the mp3 a few days ago & it’s great. Some of it seems more acoustic & laid back than some of their earlier stuff but I’m loving it. Also cool is that they’ve got Kyp & Tunde from TV on the Radio on a couple of tracks (Fantastic band in its own right, saw them at the Vic a while back, have their cds but they’re really awesome live) as well as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans on one track, also great band. Thanks for the heads up on that!

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