The first thing I think when the six members of Tinariwen come on stage is that they are a good-looking band. Not in a teen heartthrob kind of way—indeed, after watching them play for over an hour, I still don’t know what most of the musicians look like—because they’re wearing the traditional long robes of the Tuareg people of Northern Africa. Some of the band members have headscarves with swaths of fabric wrapped around most of their faces, yet when they sing the sound is clear, unmuffled. They wear shimmering blue, white, and brown. They carry electric guitars. It’s Monday night at the Brooklyn Bowl, and suddenly my thoughts are far from home.
The self-described “Saharan Blues band” plays traditional Tuareg music with notes of classic American guitar-based rock. The sound is cumulative: multiple guitars playing in twangy pentatonic scales, multiple voices singing and chanting softly, all of it overlaid with a rolling percussive beat, clapping hands, and the occasional ululating. Between the six musicians onstage there are three electric guitars, an acoustic guitar, and two kettle drums. They are occasionally joined by a friend from the audience who plays the krakeb, an instrument formed of large metal castanets. Three of the Tinariwen alternate as lead singer, and are joined by the others in a sort of choral call and response that defines the structure of all the songs. They sing in their native language, Tamasheq, which sounds like a softer Arabic. The music is at once familiar and hauntingly strange—the plaintive, warbling guitar riffs layered with clacking, clapping, and then the hum of six voices singing the same song together. I think immediately of early American folk and rhythm and blues, with overtones of arabesque orchestral music. To this American listener the sum effect is uncanny.
Traditional Tuareg music has always had string instruments. These include the imzhad, a one string violin, and the teharden, a three string lute that is popularly thought to be the ancestor of the banjo. Members of Tinariwen were introduced to acoustic guitars in the late 1970s and electric guitars in the 1980s, and began translating traditional melodies to these new instruments. Around this time the original members of the band began listening to bootleg tapes with music by Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. They noticed loose similarities between these guitar styles and their own and began building on this new musical vocabulary. Thinking about the weaving lines of influence and exchange—the teharden spawning the banjo, West African music leading to the blues leading to early American rock, Tuareg musicians playing traditional music and then listening to Hendrix, musical styles coming apart and then together—is convoluted and wonderful and weird.
Like with many early American blues musicians, the history of Tinariwen and its music is very much tied up with a history of oppression and violence. The Tuareg have lived a nomadic life for centuries in the deserts of Northern Africa, a life which in recent history has been defined by political struggles for control over their ancestral lands. They fought the French colonial invasion at the turn of the last century, and then, after de-colonization, fought the governments of Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, and Burkina Faso. There have been at least three major Tuareg uprisings, the last of which led to the brief creation in 2012 of an unrecognized, independent Tuareg nation state called Azawad. Founding Tinariwen member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib spent much of his youth in refugee camps in Libya and Algeria, exiled from his native lands in Mali. It was in these camps that he began playing music with other displaced Tuareg. This loose collection of musicians eventually came to form Tinariwen. From the beginning their music was concerned with themes of independence and has been linked to other forms of Arabic and African protest music. They used their guitars as guns—but also put down their guitars and picked up guns to fight with other Tuareg rebels in the 1980s. More recently the band has had to flee Islamic militants in Northern Mali, and recorded its sixth album, Emmaar, in Joshua Tree, California—their first album to be recorded outside the North African desert.
There is evidence of the political everywhere at the show on Monday night. One of the Tinariwen, in true rock 'n' roll fashion, has spelled out A-Z-A-W-A-D in tape on the front of his electric guitar, and throughout the set members of the audience chant this name. Two young men also repeatedly jump on stage and unfurl a green, yellow, and blue flag representing Tuareg independence. The songs are often yearning tales of heartbreak and loss, but the repetitive rhythms and percussion are eminently danceable, and the mood is celebratory and jubilant. Towards the end of the night the band picks up speed; the guitar riffs become faster and reach a wild, uplifting crescendo that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Cream album, yet is somehow fresh and exciting. The entire crowd is jumping and dancing as singer Hassan Ag Touhami, arms outstretched, calls out, beaming, “Are you happy?”