Touring behind their new Anti- album Emmaar, the Tuareg musicians from Northern Mali performed in Northampton, Mass.,on March 27 and left our Contributing Editor (and resident African music expert) nearly speechless. Opening act: The Melodic.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Tinariwen’s songs blow in from across vast distances, the guitars gathering like a dust storm from low shapeless drone into a gale force of purpose, the drum and bass stomping up clouds of rhythmic energy. Tinariwen, too, has come a long way to be at Northampton’s Iron Horse venue tonight on their tour for new album Emmaar (Anti-), draped in the colorful robes of the desert, tuned to a frequency that resembles but it not the American blues, prevented by language differences from much banter besides the occasional, “Ca va?” There are six of them present this evening, a bass player, a hand drummer and an auxiliary guitarist and three front men of wildly different timber.
Abdallah Ag Lamida, lately held in the Malian civil wars (reportedly, he was trying to get his guitars out when the soldiers came), is back here in the front row in his bright blue tunic. His mournful eyes, his way of stepping precisely toward the crowd and back in a dance full of premeditated starts and stops, his intricate acoustic guitar picking, all point to a man who has thought long and hard about how music should sound. He is measured and exact, even at the band’s most cathartic moments.
Not so Alahassane Ag Touhami, in yellow, who moves in an ecstatic, serpentine way, transported by groove, hands carving curves in the liquid air. Nor younger, smouldery guitarist, Sadam Iyad Imarhan, the only one bare-headed and unmasked on stage, who lent an electric charge and a rock and roll edge to the songs where he took the lead.
They open with “Tinde,” a song that starts with a single repeated note on bass, a pulse, a hypnotic that builds and is joined by drums, and finally voices, moving in unison and then out of it, shifting, hovering, crossing one another like tidal currents. It is not a long song, but enough to signal that we are not in Kansas anymore… or even multi-culti Northampton… but somewhere foreign and unknowable.
Then it’s off into hand-clapped, camel clomping desert rhythms of “Nazagh Ajbal,” with drummer Said Ag Ayad getting a whole kit’s worth of tones out of a single economic drum. He plays the hard flat snare-and-tom rhythms on the rim of the drum and slaps the resonant middle for kick drum sonorities. I thought, when we got there, “Oh, only one drummer?” but it’s all you need.
Abdallah takes the lead for the acoustic guitar-led “Kunten Tilay,” a fiery piece that sounds like American Primitive only more emphatic and overlaid with the most aching kind of vocal longing. And then Sadam comes to the front with his electric guitar, and the music takes a subtle shift towards psychedelic rock. You realize, too, that a young man’s yearning is qualitatively different from an older man’s – it has more sex in it, for one thing – as his shadowy, mournful voice drifts out into the audience.
At this point, I am overcome by the music, and stop taking notes, so you will have to take my word for it that it was a wonderful evening, full of rhythm and emotion, coming to a peak in the three-song bonus round, where in “Tahalamot” Abdallah plays acoustic blues and Sadam joins him on electric, two very different kinds of heat and melody twining in a single thing.
“Sastan Nakham” ups the funk quotient with a ripping bass vamp (that’s Egadou Ag Leche) that sounds like it just escaped a James Brown song. And the closer, which is, according to the setlist “Chraybone,” finishes things off in rousing, exhilarating style. Everyone in the first five rows – college students, grizzled ex-Peace Corp dudes, flower-decked hippie moms – is dancing, but no one as euphorically as the front line of Tinariwen. Who would have thought that guys who started in abject poverty, wound through several episodes of civil war, would end up starting a party in a college town in Western Massachusetts?
I should also mention that the opening band, The Melodic, from London, played a very nice set of Mumford-style, folk-referencing tunes, with boot-stomping beats and a couple of bouts of dueling melodicas. (Hence, quite possibly, the name.)The stand-out, here as on their record Effra Parade, was the shuffling, call-and-response ramble known as “On My Way,” but a bittersweet “Ode to Victor Jara” was good, too, as way the closer, a melodica-blaring extravaganza called “Piece Me Back Together.” The record came out late last year on Anti- (which is probably why they’re touring with Tinariwen), but I don’t remember hearing much about it. Shame. Good stuff.
Photos credit: Jennifer Kelly