The Invisible Wind Factory kicks off another mouthwatering season of live performances with one of only three UK appearances by Tuareg ‘desert blues’ pioneers TINARIWEN.
Nomads of the Saharan region of northern Mali and southern Algeria they have found themselves forced to live a nomadic existence of an entirely different kind, in on-off exile for the better part of four decades due to almost constant political upheaval in their homelands. They have held both Kalashnikov and Telecaster, fighting in desert wadis and recording their music in Palm Springs – quite the contrast, to put it mildly. As online politico/cultural magazine Slate put it, Tinariwen are “rock ‘n’ roll rebels whose rebellion, for once, isn’t just metaphorical”.
Before tonight’s show I asked them how being in exile had affected the recording of their latest album, Elwan, and they came back with a down-to-earth but positive take. “Tinariwen were born in exile. The situation is not shocking: the new songs are about today’s issues and problems. Also, it gave us the opportunity to go to the Moroccan Sahara where we had a very good recording session. It was very inspirational, like the Adrar des Ifoghas [mountain range] in the north of Mali, the Azawad region which is our home.” If Morocco provided something of a home from home, then recording parts of the album some two years earlier in California has added, according to critics, another layer to their traditional sound. I ask them about the contributions made by guests on the album – Kurt Vile and Mark Lanegan on the California sessions, a group of Berber gnawa trance musicians on the Moroccan sessions – but they say only that they “appreciated their humble participation”, which I guess means nobody rocked up with a rock star attitude, but rather with a love of the band’s music and a genuine desire to contribute to it. Apart from Lanegan’s short English vocal on Nànnuflày I couldn’t readily identify the guests playing, the contributions blend seamlessly into the mix. The album provides a heady brew of polyrhythmic, propulsive, percussion, weaving guitar lines and delicious vocal harmonies and, for a music so trance-like, the tracks on Elwan are relatively short, with only three tracks over the four-minute mark. Would they stick to that punchy template live or would things spiral off into noodling territory?
They walk on stage in their now familiar robes and tagelmusts. Beautiful shades of blue and gold shimmer in the spotlights as a guitar drone floats out across a sea of expectant faces and a handclap accompaniment is picked up immediately by the crowd. They move quickly into Nizzagh Ijbal from Elwan: a slow, pattering percussion, a repeated guitar motif, bassline walking slowly, inexorably like a camel crossing the Sahara, exquisitely chanted vocals that have echoed the hopes and fears of a people down through the centuries; it’s a gentle introduction to the groove that will quickly, magically, cast its spell over the audience and hold them entranced for the rest of the evening.
Two percussionists play, by hand, a stripped down, accessorised drum kit and a variety of gourds, toms and shakers, which provide plenty of variety and depth to the rhythm. Eyadou Ag Leche’s bass playing is lithe and persistent; Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni and founder member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib take turns on lead vocal and lead guitar duties and, despite the obvious language barrier, you can feel their longing for the homeland from which they are exiled, coupled with joyful evocations of the land they miss. When I asked them about the current problems in Mali they again manage to put a positive spin on things, stating that “despite the problems of journeying through the Sahara, the situation is a big source of inspiration, there are so many subjects to address in this tough reality.” A line in Nànnuflày sums this up beautifully: “Pursuing memories built on a dune that’s always moving”.
They address that reality in a set balanced between tracks from the new album and plenty of older material and they do indeed keep to the punchy template of Elwan in a 20-song set. (A Guardian review of the band’s Brixton show comments on the fact that many of the latest album tracks celebrate female strength and it is perhaps a shame that tonight’s line-up, unlike many of its predecessors, doesn’t include the counterpoint of female voices). As the night develops, Leche proves to be a flamboyant and funky bassist and Elaga Ag Hamid’s rhythm playing is a joy throughout. He seems to be filtering Mississippi hill blues, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and a fair dose of fuzzy psych into a hypnotic, rolling groove that meshes perfectly with the fluid, bluesy little rills spiralling from Ibrahim and Abdallah’s guitars. Kel Tinawen ups the ante again with its snaking rhythm, the crowd smiling and constantly moving, and there’s a fair bit of head shaking awe at the end of each track. They have a wonderful way of fading their songs out, the groove continuing, quieter, quieter, until barely audible, before a burst of wild applause from an increasingly transfixed crowd.
The whole set builds in intensity, a killer riff in Talyat is pure southern swamp, a funky bass solo sees the crowd clapping along once again. They leave to tumultuous applause and demands for an encore which sees Abdallah return on his own, acoustic guitar in hand, to deliver a simply breathtaking solo version of Curshan, beautiful flamenco inflections and bluesy picking underscore an achingly evocative vocal which floats out over a rapt, utterly silent crowd amid a fog of dry ice pierced by blue and green lighting. The rest of the band wander back on stage and blow away the swirling dry ice with the dervish-like, rolling Chaghaybou.
I asked them if, in their enforced exile, they were able to enjoy their time on the road? “Yes, we enjoy it, especially for what it represents for our country. It is really tiring but it gives us an enormous pleasure to do all these tours, we really enjoy to live this life.” That enjoyment has proved to be utterly infectious. Sometimes you go to a gig and everything falls into place, there’s a certain vibe in the room that everyone gets, a shared feeling of togetherness and community hard to find at any other type of cultural gathering. Tonight, Tinariwen blow the invisible winds of the Sahara a little further north than usual, mesmerizingly enabling us to share those feelings.