Tinariwen – Magical desert blues

Last night I floated across the Sahara on a wave of dusty desert blues.

This was Tinariwen at the Union Chapel in Islington.

The band is unique. They are comprised of Touareg people – nomads from across the Sahara. Tinariwen means “the deserts” in the Touareg language. The group was formed by the founding members 30 years ago in military training camps in Libya prior to Touareg rebellions in Mali and Niger. The band’s latest album, Tassili, won a Grammy award.

They appear on stage dressed in nomadic clothes; brightly coloured (blues, oranges, greens) robes, turbans, sandals and their faces mostly covered by veils. They play traditional Touareg music with electric guitars and strong influences of North and West African music along with American blues and even rock.

This is a magical band. And the Union Chapel is a magical place (voted by Time Out readers as London’s best music venue). And I almost felt at one point last night, sitting in the balcony, where the full spectacle of the dark cavernous but beautiful venue is at its best (as are the acoustics), that I might float out into the huge empty space under the almighty ceiling on a magic carpet, down to the desert campfire like stage setting the musicians were sat in.

I have no idea what the songs are about. They are sung in Touareg or French. And for the first few songs I did start to feel s sense of repetitiveness, even thinking that I enjoyed the support band Lo Jo more.

No real criticism mind, as Lo Jo were excellent, and deserving of further investigation. A French based band, they sounded like Serge Gainsbourgh and Leonard Cohen mixed with North African melodies and violins and some amazing dancing and vocals from the multi instrumentalist backing singers.

But just as Tinariwen started to lose my attention the repetitiveness and flow of one similar sounding song into the next started to take on a hallucinatory type effect. And as if sun stroke by the desert sun I became mesmerised by the music.

Each song is built on pretty much the same foundations of layered guitar picking, supported by electric bass, percussion played out on a bongo like drum and moody worldly sounding lead vocals and haunting harmonies.

This was rifftastic stuff with looping melodies played out on dirty dusty amplified electric guitars, building and building all the time with astonishing percussion from the single drum. Little explosions of a different guitar riff or drum fill added to the excitement.

The blues are very evident, (probably finding their way into the band from their original African routes rather than via the Mississippi), as is rock. The band have in the past supported the Red Hot Chilli Players, and the final song of the main set was driven by a blistering bass riff not dissimilar to Flea, answered with a lead guitar you might have heard on any great southern rock album of the 1970s.

This almost brought the house down, literally, with the full capacity audience stamping the floorboards of the chapel for more.

And when the guy who appeared to be the main front man (the six musicians changed instruments often and took turns on lead vocals) returned saying the only thing he seemed to know in English and had said several times during the evening – “Ca Va? It’s ok?” The audience went wild.

The encore saw them literally dancing in the aisles. As the riffs and percussion and vocals built and built resistance was futile, you had to move. As did one of the other elder band members who got up from his seat and danced in his robes and turban at the front of the stage, arms flowing like a snake charmer and jumping up and down with adoring audience members as the night ended with an explosive volley of rhythm.

Magical, charming, wonderful and totally unique.

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