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Smoke. It drifts in from a fog machine, and hovers over the guitars waiting on stage. DJ Juan G has just finished playing Fela Kuti, prior to the entrance of Tinariwen, and the anticipation is palpable in the sold-out UC Theater. The band last toured the United States in 2019 and the Berkeley crowd is anxious to see the Tuareg performers. When the lights dim, five members of the band slowly take to the stage, much like the clouds of smoke – unhurriedly and slightly hesitant.
The opening number, “Tahoultin Djegh Emedin”, ambles along at an unpretentious pace, Fender guitars stabbing at the rhythm and chanted vocals with the slightest hint of a groove, a groove that will be pursued all evening. The second number, “Idiyan Idohina”, comes across almost jaunty, and, ringed by the overhead lights, it marks the entrance of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, much to the delight of the audience. Arguably the most recognizable member of the group, and looking like an elderly Jimi Hendrix, he joins his bandmates with minimal fuss.
A few minutes later, the tempo changes, and all eyes move to the other side of the stage where Alhassane Ag Alhabib begins an enthusiastic dance. Standing at the edge of the stage, like a cross between an evangelical preacher and a stage diver, his arms and legs moving in time to the music, Alhassane energizes the audience.
The third song, “Imidiwan Sadjdati”, brings the pace back to a more leisurely saunter, and thus, the template for the night has been established – slowly burnished numbers with deep group chants followed by songs with entrenched grooves highlighting majestically funky guitar riffs. “Arjghiyin”, from the new album, Amatssou, fails to ignite, but “Anemouhagh” and “Tidjit”, also from the new record, gather steam and finally deliver on the promise of the desert blues groove with the declamatory call and response lighting up the crowd; they may not understand the language, but the audience reacts to the force of what is being sung.
Tinariwen do not perform according to Western pop tropes – there is no lead singer acting as a focus, there are no clearly established guitar solos, and background vocals repeat the melody lines with no harmonic blandishment. The group’s musical interaction is the centerpiece, and this is what gently pulls the audience toward the fulcrum of each number. For Western ears, this takes some getting used to. When the blues are brought to the fore, such as the Chicago mid-50’s licks of “Imidiwan Mahitinam”, or the long slow laments of “Alghalam Tiglistarha”, they are reference points on a long journey, not destinations.
As the show draws to a close, more grit shows up in the guitar playing, almost as if the band has brought some of the Sahara Desert sand in their amplifiers. Occasionally the interplay of guitars reminds one of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir locking in with each other. Tinawren rarely make eye contact with each other, their chants and groove-soaked guitar playing seem to be telekinetically shared between band members. Handclaps and only one percussionist are more than enough to keep the songs moving forward, though always at a measured pace. When Tinariwen finishes, the departing audience has smiles on their faces as they recognize the shared trip they have just completed.
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