- 12 Nov 19
An Audience With The True Soul Rebels. Report: Pat Carty. Pictures: Colm Kelly.
It’s quite the back story. When he was only a child, Tinariwen main man Ibrahim Ag Alhabib saw his father executed during the Tuareg uprising against a government that had only held power for a few years after the Mali Federation gained its independence from France in 1960. In the late 70s, living in exile in Algeria, he began playing, often on homemade guitars, with other Tuareg migrants, and in the following decade the band wrote songs while serving in Gadhafi’s training camps. Circulated on cassettes, this music proved popular with other Tamashek speakers. There was another Tuareg rebellion in the first half of the nineties with the aim of forming their own nation-state, in which band members participated. Peace was brokered in 1995 after which the band continued to coalesce and, after performing at the first Festival au Désert in Northern Mali, they released their debut album proper, The Radio Tisdas Sessions, in 2002. 2007’s Aman Iman: Water Is Life, produced by Robert Plant’s right-hand man Justin Adams, proved to be their break through and they’ve been touring to growing international audiences since. Success didn’t solve all their problems though, guitarist Abdallah Ag Lam was kidnaped in 2013 and, after they finished touring the Elwan album in 2018, threats from Islamist militants prevented them from returning home to Mali. The band ended up recording this year’s Amadjar outdoors in Nouakchott, the capital city of Mauritania. Think about all that the next time some rock n’ roll “rebel” is complaining about “the man”.
Six men – and let’s not mess about here, these are men, they’ve literally fought to be here – take to the stage, splendidly turned out in robes and veils, layers of cloth suitable for keeping the body cool in the desert heat, but perhaps less useful against a bitterly cold Dublin night. The kindly offered “As-salamu alaykum” greeting is met by an audience response of “wa alaykumu s-salam” and we go gently into the acoustic guitar riff of ‘Anina’, the first of many from the brilliant Amadjar (there are no bad Tinariwen albums, as yet). The bass and percussion – two musicians, one driving a tindé drum, the other a variety of percussion instruments – slowly build up, aided in no small way by the handclaps and whirling dancing of Alhassane Ag Touhami.
An aside here, I’ve been listening to Tinariwen since Aman Iman and this is not the first time I’ve seen them live, but as I don’t speak Tamashek, the titles of their songs don’t always stick in my memory. It is a barrier of language, so please make allowances for any mistakes.
Ibrahim joins the band for ‘Takount’ although Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni grabs the spotlight, stepping out past the monitors with his acoustic guitar as the bass and tindé gallop along behind him. Ibrahim finally straps his guitar on for ‘Zawal’, a song that snakes around the listener with what seem like barely picked notes. Both Ag Alhousseyni and Ag Touhami are out at the footlights during ‘Imidiwan Win Sahara’, and the flickering John Lee Hooker/Ali Farka Touré guitar lines of ‘Tenere Maloulat’ and ‘Koud Edhaz Emin’ bring it all the way back home. This is the same well that everyone from Robert Johnson to Bo Diddley to Keith Richards has dipped into, the blues before it had a name.
By the time we get to a burning ‘Tamatant Tilay’ from Aman Iman, the band have really started to cook with a groove that would scar your feet were you attempt to walk across it. Ag Alhousseyni gets more out his acoustic than lesser men could ever manage from overpowered electrics during a furious ‘Assawt’, the bass, the drums and the clapping combining to move the audience to sway together as one. Six voices and guitar combine to start ‘Sastanqqam’ and when the beat comes in, all are powerless to resist. The song even contains that rarest of animals, a worthwhile bass solo, from the great Eyadou Ag Leche.
When Ibrahim takes a solo spot, plucking gently at the guitar before the band gradually retake their places, we are transported back to the music that was forcibly dragged from one continent to another only to be melded together with the ballads of these islands and give birth to the world we live in. The razor sharp guitars and rhythms of ‘Amassakoul ‘N’Ténéré’ hit you like an itch that can only be eased by movement, and ‘Taqkal Tarha’ gives Ag Touhami another excuse – not that he needs it – to really lose himself. He and Ag Alhousseyni are as much, if not more, the centre of attention live as the more recognisable Ag Alhabib.
The encore starts with ‘Wartilla’, you could call it a slow blues but it’s more a magical spell woven from wood and steel, and the night ends with ‘Chaghaybou’, a dancing dervish of riff and drum. It’s hypnotic, evocative, and any other cliché you might care to name.
All this and they didn’t even find time for ‘Cler Achel’, one of the greatest pieces of rock n’ roll recorded this century. But, then again, they didn’t need it. Tinariwen, and their performance tonight, are living proof that music is the language that needs no translation, the language that recognises no borders, the language that we all instinctively understand. One of the greatest bands in the world. Ælbǽrka.