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Tinariwen Unleashes a Saharan Dance Party

Tinariwen are not from around here. They're not from a world of autotune and product placement. They aren't American Idols, or Guitar Heroes. Tinariwen are "people of the desert," poets and musicians from the southern Sahara, who wandered into UCLA's Royce Hall stage Saturday night to share the sound and vision of a world apart. Their bodies draped in robes and faces obscured by tagelmust headwear indicative of their fellow Toureg desert nomads, the musical collective shared their songs of revolution and poems of desert solitude driven by Stratocasters and hand claps. Tinariwen opened a gateway to another reality, holding the thread of ancient rhythms and universal songs sung across the continents, and the ages.

On stage, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib strums a green Stratocaster, clothed in colorful robes. He doesn't wear the face-covering tagelmust, like the lanky bassist or drummer, instead his hair extends in every direction, salt and peppered with gray, and his face cut deep with lines carved from his 50 years in the desert. In the dust and rustle of Ibrahims voice, we hear the pain of his father's incarceration and execution he witnessed as a boy, the scattering of their cattle heard by Malian army, and exile into Algeria. In Ibrahim's guitar, we hear the dreams of a young boy who built a guitar from a tin can, stick, and a bicycle wire, inspired by the troubadours of the American west, who roamed the range not unlike his own. His guitar is an extension of his voice, with tiptoing notes, soaring bends, and dissonant chords intelligible in any country. Like the droning dirge cast by opening Tuvan throat singers Huun Huur Tu, (who proved that, as death and drone metal afficinados already know, that one person's burp is another person's music), Ibrahim's voice tapped into universal emotions.

Tinariwen's effervescent beats are driven by handclaps by Wonou Wallet Sidati, her hands bringing together the waving vocals, lumbering basslines, and Ibrahims short bursts of guitar. When Royce Hall's crowd began clapping along, she would begin to dance toward the edge of the stage. Clothed in black fabric and a headscarf, Sidati's face and hands became the focal points. Her hands moved like two birds playing in an updraft, before she returned to the microphone so sing a response to Ibrahim's call. Touareg women have relative freedom--after all, the men wear the veils-- and they are important to driving the rhythms of these nomads. This is little surprise, after all, women are inherent beatmakers, every person ever has listened to a mother's heartbeat for those nine months in the womb. And so goes Sidati's steady handclap, the extension of her heart, creating the foundation of a song that everyone can dance to. And they did. Halfway through the show, much of the audience left their seats to dance near the front of the stage: white men Ibrahim's age raised their hands and swayed, a "Jersey Shore" bro-alike yelled "sooooo good" while punching the air, and a woman performs a lap dance (probably learned from YMCA pole dancing lessons) on her seated companion. All this at UCLA's concert hall. But that's the power of the rhythm, the lifebeat, and Ibrahim's electric guitar.

Tinariwen's story is not a different chapter in rock music's history, it's an entirely different book. While displaced in Algeria and Libya in the late 1970's, the listless, jobless Touareg youth would gather together and sing songs in camps outside of town. Here, amongst other Touareg who also had been displaced by droughts in Saharan villages, they brought together their own nation, an intangible, borderless country that would materialize whenever these nomads would meet. Here, they shared familiar music and stories, and Tinariwen was born from desert jams sessions where the youth played music ranging from Arabic pop to traditional Touareg anthems to Led Zeppelin. Leading the group was Ibrahim, a rambunctious guitarist and singer, who wrote songs about the political struggles of the Touraeg.

Although the troupe uses the tools of Western music, guitars and electric bass, comparisons are inadequate when it comes to Tinariwen. Aligning them with Western music often falls short. Rock 'n' roll found its roots in the blues, and blues found its roots in American slavery, but Tinariwan, quite literally is "revolution rock."

In 1980, when Colonel Gaddafi encouraged Touareg men to join the army, Ibrahim and Tinariwen followed the call. While training, they met other musicians and even built a studio, where they recorded cassettes. They passed out the cassettes, which reached the far corners of the deserts. They returned to Mali in 1990 just as the revolution broke out. They fought for 9 months for freedom, then put down their guns and picked up their guitars once again.

The Tinariwen who joined Ibrahim onstage is no longer the Tinariwen of the past. The original members have passed on or moved on, but the band itself is comprised of the Touareg raised on those desert cassettes. They continue the lineage and songs that brought the rebels and the outcasts together. As they bring the songs that started a revolution to the Western ears, the temptation to remix, remaster, adapt, option, and exploit Tinariwen is ever-present. But please don't. Just share the songs, sing the songs, and let their music wander like it always has. Tinariwen's crossed huge distances and difficult times to get here. Let them enjoy this oasis in the dunes. Like Ibrahim sings in the show-closing "Cler Achel," "I spent the day and still the following night, I spent the whole season travelling."


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