When your band is comprised of nomads from the Sahara – musicians with strong militant roots – you have more than a few stories to tell. Now picture being on tour in North America, with Tamashek, the native tongue of your fellow nomadic Touaregs, as your primary means of communication. Talk about being a stranger in a strange land.
But in the case of the Grammy-winning Tinariwen, the desert troupe that headlined last night’s opening of the MusicNOW Festival at Cincinnati’s Memorial Hall, a sense of artistic communion bridged all borders.
As almost always seems to be the case in performances when language divides artist and audience, rhythm and groove took over. For Tinariwen’s 85-minute set, that meant tunes centered on mid-tempo ensemble grooves performed in relatively tight quarters. The sound was positively swelling at times, yet the group – which shifted between five and six members – never used more that two guitars, bass and hand percussion. There were no leads, no solos and no obvious refrains in the song structures. Instead, tunes like Imidiwan Win Sahara (from Tinariwen’s Grammy-winning 2001 album, Tassili) operated with vocals and verses established by guitarist and group leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib that were sung like chants.
Sometimes the resulting mood was elegiac. In others, it was warmer and more contemplative. Throughout, though, its infectious sway was profound. Much of the audience, seemingly unfamiliar with the music they were about to experience, remained on its feet for the duration of the set.
This isn’t to say there weren’t at least a few barriers in this kind of presentation. Alhabib was the only group member who didn’t have his face at least partially concealed by the scarves that were part of Tinariwen’s native nomadic gowns. But the band’s visual profile, foreign as it might have initially seemed, only added to the music’s worldly grace and mystery.
It would have been even more fascinating to discover some of the narratives in their lyrics, but one message was conveyed clearly after Alhabib had someone from the audience translate it for him from the stage: “We are friends.”