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Tinariwen at Amoeba on Thursday, September 29th, 2011

There was recently an interview of Fool’s Gold in the LA Weekly, one of these bands which mixes African rhythms with Western rock, and there was an allusion to an interesting question by an English journalist, asking, ‘Why would I listen to you guys when I could listen to real African artists?'
Yes, why? Why listening to Western copies of the real thing, when you have Tinariwen, a Tuareg band performing at Amoeba on Thursday night.

It is actually a false problem as Lewis Pesacov, the lead guitarist of Fool’s Gold explained:
‘But we and the African musicians are coming from such different places. A lot of African musicians love Clapton, for example, they're trying to be like rock guitar players, and they're coming at American blues in such a different way. And that's why it sounds different. Remember, the Brazilian tropicalista musicians of the '70s proudly 'cannibalized' British and American pop music. It's a dialogue between Western and non-Western music.’
In the same idea, I also remember an interview of famous African musicians declaring they wanted to emulate Dire Straits.

And it is a little what is happening with Tinariwen, which looked like true rockers, despite their traditional outfits, as they were using electric guitars and bass, the only traditional instrument on stage being an African drum. Since 2001, they have recorded in studios in France and Mali, although their sound has its true origin in the desert between Mali and Algeria, where frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib grew up. Watching him at Amoeba, he had this mysterious look of someone silently observing people, with more wisdom than that of a 51 year-old man. When I read his bio, it all made sense: his father was a Tuareg rebel who was executed in front of his eyes when he was only 4, he lived in refugee camps and later joined a Tuareg army backed by Qaddafi!

With their latest release ‘Tassili’ last August, the band wanted to return to its beginning, with a melancholic, repetitive chant, the ‘ishumar’, which ‘means exile or being adrift’, as they explained in an interview.

But do Tuaregs actually play guitars, and as a matter of fact, electric guitars? No, in reality, Alhabib saw a cowboy playing a guitar in a movie when he was a child, and built his own one out of a tin can. The music of Tinariwen (which means deserts) was born from this two-way exchange, exotic, seemingly coming from the Sahara and at the same time, immediately accessible. Everyone at Amoeba was clapping and dancing along their repetitive incantations, which were slowly moving, opening soundscapes as wide as the desert, while building this deep groove, ‘stolen’ by bands like Junip. The band was not speaking much, but were visibly appreciating the very positive reaction from the crowd, just saying a few 'thank you', or 'merci beaucoup'.

Six on stage, and not moving much, except one of the singers and the drummer, their three-voice harmonies were escaping from African guitars turning in circles, and accelerating a bit on some songs, making a guy in the crowd, who had dressed up like a Tuareg for the occasion, jump exhilaratingly with his puppet camel.

The style of their music or ‘asuf’, as they call it, has been compared to the American blues, and the more I was looking at Ag Alhabib, the more I thought he looked like a Chuck Berry with an afro, minus all the moves of the American musician.

They sure were putting a spell on the crowd, as everyone was fascinated by the spectacle. Just before they started the show, a young guy said to another one he had come from Salt Lake City especially to see them! A long trip, but the music definitively had this healing sensation coming from the deep desert.

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