Consider Tinariwen an amalgam of The Grateful Dead, The Wu-Tang Clan, and the sublime frequencies of the Sublime Frequencies comp of 1970’s Algerian Rai underground. Crossroads dirges. Six weary travelers singing traditional arrangements turned electric, a nomad blues. Hypnotic guitars, ragged laments, and a subtle ferocity flashing its fangs at all the right moments. Tapes baked in the blistering Sahara sun passed from palm to palm — no illegal downloading among the Tuaregs — just a covalent communion to the holy groove and rebellious words aimed at the oppressive Malian government.
Since a breakout performance at 2001’s Festival of the Desert set them on a path towards international acclaim, Tinariwen have become the darlings of the NPR set, revered by everyone from veteran superstars like Robert Plant to Chrissy Martin, to new jacks like Tunng and Fool’s Gold, all of these outfits united by their desire to employ the same entrancing sand-storm of rhythm — a languid and lissome funk fresh for both bands and fans seeking a repose from the arch-backed guitars and post-punk poses that dominated the first half of the last decade (to say nothing of whatever sad-sack pastiche passes for most “indie” today).
The venerable outfit has also acquired acolytes among the Seth and Munchie set, the pony-tailed, wizard-bearded ex-hippie hive that faithfully purchases UCLA Live tickets in the winter and Hollywood Bowl tickets in the summer. Ostensibly, they take to Tinariwen for a taste of the exotic, their face-masking tagelmusts and free-flowing robes, hand drums, and the powerful but played out mythology of the band as rebel-musicians, carrying a Kalashnikov and a knapsack filled with esoteric oriental instruments. But despite the staid and scholarly surroundings, the crowd overcame cheap generalizations and proved that Tinariwen’s recent surge in popularity stems from neither backstory nor bandwagon mentality, but merely its ability to tap into a universal consciousness, thematic simplicity, and unstinting groove.
Of course, “groove” is an extremely charitable euphemism to describe the Elaine Benes anti-rhythm and “Big Bad Wolf” flails that occupied the front half of the auditorium. Thankfully, Wonou Wallet Sidati, the band’s lone female, kept a fluid beat on the left side of the stage, clad in a sea-green and ankle-length dress, mauve shawl wrapped round her shoulders. Displaying moves halfway between a sorceress and a toreador, Sidati’s voice added an emollient to the arid and weather-ravaged voice of frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. Initially, Alhabib lurked in the backstage shadows, only emerging after the third song to assume center stage like a lanky avenging angel. One of the band’s founding members, Algabib’s Barry White by way of Bamako baritone conveyed an instant authority, regardless of linguistic difference. It’s a vocal deep as hell, the same spot it sounds like its been through.
Tinariwen tap into the same sacred vein of religion or the brute symbolism of the elements. It’s no surprise that they took a cue from Fela Kuti in titling their most recent album Water is Life. Both understated and overwhelming, the Royce Hall performance proved that transported from their desert homes to the most cloistered and staid environment, Tinariwen is nothing to fuck with.