Tinariwen | 04.16 | San Francisco

By: Jim Welte

Tinariwen :: 04.16.09 :: Palace of Fine Arts :: San Francisco, CA

There's really nothing quite like the sound of a pack of middle-aged white women ululating. In a powerful display of a band's ability to transport its audience to a far-off land, Tuareg desert blues band Tinariwen took a packed house at The Palace of Fine Arts on a trip to the Sahara region from which it hails, and in return received the long, high-pitched shrills of its homeland.

The band's unmistakable loping, trance-inducing sound immediately won over the crowd at the San Francisco Jazz Festival show, filling the aisles of the normally staid venue for most of the 90-minute set. Missing its founder and lead singer Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the band wasn't at full strength, but all six members made up for his absence - it's safe to say that no one was any the wiser.

Taking the stage in their trademark flowing robes and cheche headdresses, the band wasted no time getting hypnotic. Much like the African-American blues that rock sprouted from, Tinariwen's music is in a pentatonic scale and therefore rhythmically accessible to Western ears. But, the deliberate, plodding tempo of many songs, coupled with chanting in the Tamashek language of the Tuareg culture, was often spellbinding.

As has been oft-repeated since the band began touring the U.S. in 2004, Tinariwen was founded, quite literally, in the throes of armed rebellion. Ibrahim and bandmates Hassan Ag Touhami and Abdallah Ag Alhousenyni were part of the nomadic Tuaregs' longstanding effort to gain liberation from the West African nations where they live. The trio trained in Colonel Ghadaffi's military camps in Libya in the 1980s and fought in an uprising against the Malian government in the early 1990s. While living in southern Algeria years earlier, Ibrahim had seen a Jimi Hendrix film and was able to find an electric guitar. It was from his obsession with electric guitar music that Tinariwen was born.

Tinariwen from myspace.com/tinariwen
Most of the concert drew from tracks off 2007's third album, Aman Iman, which was produced by Robert Plant collaborator Justin Adams. Plant himself has touted the band and performed at the 2002 edition of Festival in the Desert (check our exclusive on-site coverage of the 2006 Festival here), the event Tinariwen created as a gathering of Tuareg and West African guitar bands.

In Ibrahim's place, Abdallah took the reins as the band's leader, frequently asking the delighted crowd, "Is it okay?" His acoustic guitar work on tracks like "Assawt N'chet Tamashek" were outstanding, full of beautiful, compact solos. Tracks like "Matadjem Yinmixan" had all six members harmonizing over spare electric guitar and the booming rhythm section of bassist Eyadou Ag Leche and djembe master Said Ag Ayad.

During the encore, "Arawan," which features Abdallah rapping in French over a clipped, spare beat, got the entire crowd on its feet. But on an earlier track, "Tamatant Tilay," Eyadou and Said laid down an up-tempo rhythm over which the other four picked up guitars, dueling, complementing and constructing a giant sea wall of stupor-inducing sound. It was a brief but terribly fun sonic journey to the desert.

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[Published on: 5/7/09]

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