Tinariwen needs no opening act; the group had the audience captivated all on their own for over an hour and a half this weekend at The Theater of Living Arts. They’ve been described as a electric guitar orchestra or desert blues, and likened to the music of Malian folk/blues musician Ali Farka Toure. None of these comparisons do the band justice.
Tinariwen, which means either “open spaces,” “empty places,” or just “deserts,” depending on who translates your Tamasheq, mixes the traditional sounds of the Tuareg culture with blues/rock electric guitars, hypnotic percussion, and poetic vocals that are usually sung in a call and response form that emphasizes their meaning.
The crowd let out a good number of “I know this song!!” cheers, and many of the Philadelphia residents were introduced to the band by Philly’s crown prince of rock guitar, Kurt Vile, who shared the stage with Tinariwen last year at Union Transfer, and contributed to their latest album. My semi-trained ears were able to recognize two of my favorite songs. The first was the deep groove of “Sastanåqqåm” from the 2017 album Elwan. The song starts with percussion and bass guitar playing a groove that should have been the new Mission Impossible theme music. Then comes a lightly accompanied main vocal melody followed by the powerful response of the group vocals. Finally, the full guitar riff and percussion enter to kick the song into it’s final form, a guitar-fuel, funk-rock dance track about the desert.
“Tell me, Ténéré,
how you and I
Can remain united,
with no hate for each other.
Ténéré, I can now admit that
I have travelled far through this wide world.
Ténéré, I give you my oath
That as long as I’m alive,
I will always come back to you.”
The band traded instruments, swapped lead singers and hype-men, I even saw a few members at the bar, really emphasizing the group’s collective nature. The next song I recognized was from the 2007 album Aman Iman: Water is Life. You may also remember the song “Cler Achel” from when Flea and Josh Klinghoffer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers joined the the band on stage in 2012. Look it up, it’s great!
The highlight of the show was the amount of elated energy coming from the stage. The eldest member of the group had the biggest smile and the most exciting dance moves which traveled kinetically throughout the crowd. Not a wallflower in the room.
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