Live Review: Tinariwen

This band has perhaps one of the most rock ‘n’ roll histories of all. Beginning in 1979, the group has faced territorial conflict, government rebellions, military rivalry and they won a Grammy in 2011.

Tinariwen are a collective of musicians from Mali, North Africa who have risen to international fame over the last decade and appeared at festivals like Glastonbury and Coachella. Their sparse, raw guitar lines and mesmerising blues has become popular in places outside North Africa partly due to attention from acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Robert Plant and Carlos Santana. Their new album “Emmaar” was released last month.

Wearing traditional boubous, a nomadic robe, they play music defined by inter-locking electric guitars, sultry, sly vocals and gritty bass. There were a couple of more upbeat songs towards the end of the set, but the first half was dominated by songs that sounded like angry political comment that were aimed at a Malian, not western, audience. This half was more focused and intense than the end, which was mostly animated. At this point the front couple of rows were swamped by dreadlocked hippies.

In between songs there is little chat (the band speak little English and sing in Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg nomads), but the common “thank you” receives rapturous applause.

I think the real enjoyment comes in just immersing yourself in the spacey sounds and hypnotic guitars. Their set crawls along using soft drumming and vocals that multiply midway through the verses to slowly build to twinkling guitar melodies. More than this though, Tinariwen stand and play as a group that has overcome more than any band around. They are certainly the greatest example of desert blues there is, in the West at least.

After a long list of dates in the U.S, Tinariwen are back in the U.K for a few shows in early May.


~ Joe Burns