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Tinariwen at Mali Fest

Tinariwen at Mali Fest
Harry S. Pariser By

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Tinariwen
Nourse Theater
Mali Fest
San Francisco
April 19, 2014

"A divided people will never reach its goal
It will never cultivate an acacia tree with beautiful leaves A divided people will lose its way
Each part of it will become an enemy in itself"—Toumast ("The People")

Tinariwen. The name means "The Deserts," after the region from which these Touareg performers hail. For the Touareg, who inhabit vast expanses of the middle and western Sahara as well as the north-central Sahel, nothern Africa are a number of deserts, including the true desert, Ténére. Some are more arid; others more mountainous. All are dominated by their tribesmen.

Tinariwen's music defies ready categorization. A combination of electric and acoustic guitars with tribal musical styles, some call it "desert blues." Others "trance music." The group calls its music assouf (roughly translated, "our nostalgia"). Its style of music has also been dubbed "Tishoumaren," or "the music of the unemployed." Songs address such issues as political strategies and life in exile. The music is highly spirited, often repetitious and forthright. Sung in Touareg, the lyrics may be indecipherable but the musical mélange exudes radiance. As true with the region as a whole, the band came together as a result of historical events and cultural influences. Tinariwen built its foundations in exile in Tamanrasset, Algeria, achieving popularity by giving away cassette copies of its music, but returned to Mali, the homeland of some 900,000 Touareg, following a ceasefire in the 1990s.

The band's leader, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib—who did not join this tour— witnessed his father executed in front of him during a 1963 uprising in Mali. Alhabib became passionate about creating music as a youth after he was given an acoustic guitar. The group coalesced as Gadaffi invited Touareg to train in Libya. There, it recorded music relevant to the issues and problems facing its kinsmen. Returning to Mali in 1989, the group'a members found themselves fighting as rebels during the 1990 revolt. Since the 1992 armistice, they have devoted themselves to music, and younger members have joined. The group's star has risen during the past 25 years, and Tinariwen now tours all over the world. The group has even appeared on television in 2011 in the United States, having played and been interviewed on The Colbert Report. In line with the Touareg's nomadic and collectivist roots, the ensemble's lineup has never been the same on any tour. Today, the wild enthusiasm and devotion of its fans speaks for itself.

On this occasion, the band was introduced by Karim Baer, the director of Public Programs & Performances at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). Professor Andrej Grubacic followed, and commented on the problems and dilemmas faced by ethnic minorities lacking their own nation states (Grubacic himself is of Roma descent) and how one can make the choice to take up the guitar rather than the rifle.

Lights were then dimmed, and the six members of Tinariwen took the stage: three guitarists/vocalists; Eyadou Ag Leche, a powerful bassist; and percussionist Said Ag Ayad, who played his djembé (drum) with his hands while striking a tambourine with his foot. At all times there were six guitars on stage, with three of them in use. Acoustic guitarist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni and electric guitarists Touhami Ag Alhassane and Ayad Moussa Ben Abderahmane alternated leads on the twenty songs performed. Two members of the ensemble wore three traditional tagelmust (turbans) and alasho (the cotton veils traditionally worn by male Touareg, which are colored with pounded-in indigo dye), while one wore the bukar (a black cotton tagelmust).

Bassist Ag Leche's instrument had a sticker on it reading "Azawad," the name of the nation the Touaregs claim, an area encompassing around 60% of Mali's total land area. (Azawad itself is probably a corruption of Azawagh, a parch basin which extends over contemporary northwestern Niger, as well as portions of northeastern Mali and southern Algeria.)

The band's first number, "Tindé," began with a tonal invocation and then led into the syncopated rhythmic hand-clapping which serves as one of the group's signature styles. Said Ag Ayad played the enormous calabash gourd, one hand each pummeling each side as Ag Alhousseyni's acoustic guitar supplemented the hypnotic mix. Next up was "Nazaghejbal." Although Karim tried asking the audience to stay in their seats, the six pied pipers lured them forward, their hands waving as they danced.

The remainder of the twenty tunes performed included such classics as "Amassakoul," the title song of the 2004 CD of the same name (which the band performed live with Carlos Santana at Montreux), "Subhan'Allah" ("Praise Be to God") and "Amidinine." The group returned onstage for an encore ("Tahalamot," "Sastan" and "Achraybone"), and received a deserved standing ovation.

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