Tinariwen merges sounds of the desert and guitar jams

"The first time I heard Jimi Hendrix was in 2006, and I was just amazed," says Tinariwen's Eyadou Ag Leche (right, with Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni). He says the group feels an affinity to '70s bands, without necessarily knowing their names.
"The first time I heard Jimi Hendrix was in 2006, and I was just amazed," says Tinariwen's Eyadou Ag Leche (right, with Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni). He says the group feels an affinity to '70s bands, without necessarily knowing their names. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 21, 2014

The music of Tinariwen, the Saharan blues band that will perform at the Prince Music Theater on Friday, is at once familiar and exotic.

This group of Tuareg musicians from northern Mali sing in their native language of Tamashek, dress in long flowing robes and taguelmoust headscarves, and use traditional African percussion instruments in creating their trance-inducing sound.

But Tinariwen are also a spectacular electric guitar band. Their music, as heard on Emmaar (ANTI-, ***1/2), the band's new (and sixth) album, has a natural affinity with acts from John Lee Hooker to Jimi Hendrix to Led Zeppelin.

The interlocking guitars that define the sound of Tinariwen, as well as that of younger Tuareg acts such as Bombino and Terakaft - who have grown up under the group's influence - come on like a slow-rolling sandstorm that takes its time carrying away the listener in its hypnotic sweep.

Whatever similarities the band's music bears to Western styles, however, are not the result of the nomadic African musicians growing up on American blues and rock-and-roll.

Last month, three members of Tinariwen - who will be six strong when they play the Prince tomorrow night - were in Philadelphia on a promotional tour. Bass player Eyadou Ag Leche explained their musical relations.

"The young guys today play the kind of music of Tinariwen, which we appreciate," said Ag Leche, 36, speaking in French through an interpreter. "The sound that you listen to now, it's been invented by Tinariwen. It's part of our own culture, our own music. But it's been arranged with modern sounds, and modern instruments."

Ag Leche has been playing with Tinariwen, founded by guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib in 1979, for 15 years. (Ag Alhabib, recognizable because he does not wear a headscarf and sports a sizable, copper-colored Afro, is not on tour with the band because he is " très fatigué," Ag Leche said. "He is resting.")

The bass player said he and his fellow musicians were exposed to Western music only after heading out of Africa to perform. "While touring we were able to listen to music that is new to us," he said. "And we were really surprised that it sounded familiar. The first time I heard Jimi Hendrix was in 2006, and I was just amazed."

" 'What is this?,' " he said in English, smiling, then slipped back into French. "We were feeling very happy, having found this music family. For us, everything starts with nature. Music could come from the desert, the forest. Everything starts with the environment. We have the feeling that is mostly related to the bands of the '70s than the ones of today. We just discovered the artistic character of these bands: Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana. There are so many others, but we don't know their names."

In Tamashek, the word Tinariwen means "deserts." Guitarist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni told the music website Okay Player that Emmaar means "the closest point you can get to a fire without being burnt. It is the closest you can sit to a fire, without it being too hot."

The simmering album, which features contributions from spoken-word artist Saul Williams and Nashville fiddle player Fats Kaplin, was recorded in the Mojave desert in Joshua Tree, Calif. It was the first time Tinariwen had worked outside the Sahara.

That was partly to escape persecution back home in Mali, and partly because "we like to discover other deserts," Ag Leche said. "It's part of our name. Our source is the desert. It's very ancient. It's part of our Tuareg culture and poetry."

The Tuaregs are Muslim, but Ag Leche said that the band was forced to leave home because Islamist extremists in Mali have attempted to ban music, even kidnapping one of the band members last year.

A month ago, Ag Leche spoke at the World Cafe Live after performing a Free at Noon concert. He and his bandmates performed while wearing their traditional robes.

They wear the robes "in the desert, not for hiding ourselves. Terrorists have been using these kinds of clothes for hiding themselves, but this is not at all the same. We have been wearing these clothes for ever and ever. We speak with our eyes, with glances. But it's also protection from the environment. The sun, the wind."

Out of his stage togs, Ag Leche was dressed in a leather jacket, jeans, and Converse Jack Purcell sneakers. The frigid Philadelphia temperatures weren't so bad, he said, because in "in the desert it is hot during the day, but cold at night. We only see the snow on television."

The songs on Emmaar, he said, "are about our life in the desert. How it is hard, and about our political situation. The environment where we're living. And also about love."

More than a million Tuaregs live in various nations in the northern African interior, with most in Niger, Mali, and Algeria, where Ag Leche lives when Tinariwen are not on tour.

"Decolonization created Mali in the 1950s and '60s," Ag Leche said. "France decided to create these borders. But we were already there." Today, "some other countries give more respect to the Tuareg community, but Mali is not doing this. It has gotten better in the past year, but it is still very complicated."

The songs of protest on Emmaar, said the nomadic musician, give voice to the call for a Tuareg homeland. "We ask for our own territory. It's really simple. We only want this."



8 p.m. Friday at Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St.

Tickets: $22.50-$27. Information: 215-972-1000 or www.princemusictheater.org.





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