Tinariwen: nomadic West African band create an atmospheric night in Newington

Wednesday 26th April

As a band whose roots are deeply buried in the war-torn soil of West Africa, Tinariwen’s history often overshadows its musical legacy. The collective was founded in Algeria in the late ‘70s, and over the years has been in constant movement between its neighbouring countries, Libya, and the members’ homeland in northern Mali. Many of the older musicians were exiles and rebels, leading to a necessarily fluid line-up at any one time, but the group has managed to stay active throughout the four decades since its inception. Despite the unease and uncertainty of such a nomadic existence, Tinariwen has carved out a sound which retains a consistency even as it allows itself to respond to the change which surrounds it.

On stage, the richness and body of this sound finds its home, filling all available space with the swirling rhythms and warm tones of the west African assouf style. Any influence from nearly twenty years of worldwide acclaim and touring, including a period of exile in California’s Joshua Tree desert, is subtle and careful, the group being wary of compromising their sound for the sake of peddling to a Western market. There are touches of psych-rock and western blues, particularly on songs from most recent album Elwan, where Kurt Vile and Matt Sweeney contribute reverb and folky rhythms, but Vile’s absence from the live performance of ‘Tiwàyyen’ doesn’t take from it in any way. The twangy chords and steady bass are unmistakeably Tinariwen, and the guitar which skitters above the second verse adds a looser element to the song that the recorded version lacks. In fact, the wealth of interweaving guitar lines that one may expect from the band, who regularly have up to four different guitarists working on a song, is mostly absent live. The guitarists are rotated instead, swapping position and dominance every few songs and ensuring the individual intricacies of their melodies are not drowned out in a wall of competing riffs.

A relaxed, laidback atmosphere is created by the band, coaxing an initially stiff crowd into movement with the bluesy trance of pendulum-like bass and wood percussion. Momentum picks up with the appearance of founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, whose smoky voice makes for a full and emotive chorus with the other singers, while one member helps to trace the motion of the music throughout, his body swaying and cavorting as the rhythm directs. The group sings in the Tamasheq dialect of the Tuareg people, but the musicians are adept enough at drawing sense and feeling from their instruments that the songs can be understood through the interplay between them. The sombre, meditative tone of the earlier part of the set becomes more uptempo and celebratory with the soaring bass and lightly picked guitar of ‘Imidiwan Ma Tennam’, and reaches its peak of exaltation when bassist Eyadou Ag Leche locks with the percussionist or guitarists on ‘Assàwt’ and ‘Sastanàqqàm’, making the crowd throw some frenzied shapes. The final offering starts out as an acoustic show of slick fretwork and sticky notes, but gradually builds as the musicians rejoin one-by-one until the crescendo gives way to thunderously appreciative applause.

Tinariwen’s longevity is testament to their musical prowess, and proof that they are more than just a novelty in the Western music world. Whether recording in deserts on opposite sides of the globe or performing in an auditorium in Newington, Tinariwen have made their own musical stamp and stayed true to it.

Image: Manfred Werner

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