Like meeting a friend in a foreign country, Tinariwen’s performance felt familiar, yet unusual. It was a feeling that stemmed from a juxtaposition of foreign and domestic. The Northern Malian group performed at The Palace of Fine Arts in conjunction with SF Jazz Festival.
The sellout crowd shouted and clapped as Tinariwen took the stage. The six band members (the band’s lineup changes frequently) were dressed traditionally, wearing sandals, long robes and turbans. In front of a bare back drop, their foreign dress was the only spectacle. The bareness of their set paled in comparison to mainstream American bands.
Musically, Tinariwen crosses boundaries sounding like a combination of Ali Farke Touré (know by some as the John Lee Hooker of Africa), Keith Richards and psychedelic rock. The group combine blues guitars and rolling African rhythms, into a re-imagined worldly rock ‘n roll. Musically rooted in Tuareg culture, their uses of electric and acoustic guitars suggest an American blues influence, meanwhile being traditionally rooted by the African drum.
While sonically their comparisons appear to have roots in American culture, their lyrics tell a different story. Historically, the Tuaregs are an ancient Berber nomadic pastoral people that have fought other African groups, while also resisting French imperialism. Their lyrics are political stories of struggle and resistance. Singing in Berber, a cross between French and Arabic, the cross-culture influences yet again become apparent.
During their hour and half set, they played mostly from their new album Imidiwan, occasionally playing older songs like “Arawan” and “Cler Achel.” Whether because of the reasons above or others, the first half of the set felt like an awkward greeting. The band played stiffly. Uncertain by the band’s disposition the crowd seemed removed, clapping when appropriate, but otherwise remaining motionless. There was no American showmanship that one might expect from a Grammy performance. The band’s inability to speak English only further widened this gap. Between songs the group responded briefly, but courteously to the applause with “Merci,” or “Thank you.”
As their set wore on the language of music overcame this barrier. The blues harmonies, the solemn and emotive vocals, reminded the audience of their original excitement as they began to dance. In turn, the band began to move. The bassist would hop skip while plucking his guitar. One of the vocalists moved away from microphone, dancing across the stage, encouraging the crowd to follow. It was as though the crowd realized they were familiar with the band. This was the same Tinariwen they listened to at home, the same Tinariwen they danced to before, and then now. Foreign or world music did not need to be understood in its original context, just in the context of home.