This is the 2009 show that's likely to build into a Coachella legend. Tinariwen's sunset set at the Gobi tent. Standing on the stage, the sextet, dressed in traditional Tuareg robes and headwear and veils, the band, part of a nomadic community of Saharan North Africa, draws influences from the music of the region: Malian guitar pop and a little bit of tangled tunings of its fellow Africaners to further south and west, combined with western electric guitars and this ringing, pure tone that's closest American kindred is maybe Lou Reed's hollow, somewhat distorted electric vibe. Mingle this sound with an acoustic strum, hand claps, bass, percussion and something that we mere mortals can only understand as “groove,” and you've got something magical.
The band has been performing in one incarnation or another for seventeen years now — one for every bullet wound that one member (according to the Internets, so take that for what it's worth) is said to have received after leading several raids. The story goes that he was armed only with a guitar on his back and a Kalashnikov in his hands. He was once reportedly doused with gasoline.
Pretty gangsta, yes?
Big whoop. It's the music that counts, and as the band got onto the stage and stepped on the Universal Treadmill of Groove, one that propels booties and brains regardless of language, religion, age or gender. Live, the band is inexplicably great. Maybe it's the rhythms, which don't abide by the western four/four time signature and beat in complicated and pleasing ways. Maybe it's the tones, which capture so many different levels on the frequency range that sounds arrive in thin, woven layers that are both delicate and durable. Or the joy. Or the funk. Or the drum.
Or Tinariwen's awesome hype man, who stood stage right and did some sort of beautiful ghost dance and harmonized along. All bands should have a hype man.
Testimonials: Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold, onstage during its inaugural Coachella performance, said, “I hope you had a chance to check out Tinariwen.” Ian MacKaye founder of Dischord Records, Fugazi, Minor Threat and the Evens, was watching with Henry Rollins and Shepard Fairey. After the show, while Rollins held MacKaye's newborn, Carmine, MacKaye told me the Tinariwen gig was his favorite set of the festival.