Tinariwen Heats Up The Chapel

11/04/2014

Don’t you love when a song makes you feel as though you’ve been physically transported to another place? You can surf Malibu with The Beach Boys or fly to the moon and back with Pink Floyd, all without leaving the comfort of your couch. Add another to the list: watching Tuareg blues-folk band Tinariwen play The Chapel last Monday in support of their excellent new album Emmaar felt like wandering barefoot across the Sahara with a group of guitar-slinging sonic nomads. Armed with four electric guitars, a bass, two single drums, and seven incredible voices, they took us on a journey of their homeland in 90 minutes flat.

Tinariwen got their start in 1979 when founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib took up playing guitar during the sociopolitical conflict in Mali, beginning a veritable dynasty of rebel fighters who would play and record music together for decades to come. Much has been written about Tinariwen’s origin in the deserts, so you expect to hear the sun-baked Saharan influence in their music. And it was certainly there– from the hypnotic thumping of the djembe, to the warm, multilayered vocal harmonies and off-beat handclaps. Emmaar standout “Timadrit in Sahara” is a good introduction; the twangy, finger-tapped guitar work and polyrhythmic handclaps sounded fantastic live. The red, glowing ceilings of The Chapel accentuated the inherent, slow-burning heat in the music. I also smelled a shitload of patchouli.

Tinariwen“Timadrit in Sahara” (Live on KEXP)

Yet, what sets these guys apart from their peers is their innate understanding and inclusion of Western blues music in their sound. If you’ve heard Tinariwen before, you know they’re no stranger to a six-string. But you might be surprised at just how deeply the moody blues guitar has penetrated into their sound. Influenced as much by Jimi Hendrix as Jil Jilala, Tinariwen’s latest album is the first they’ve tracked outside Africa (recorded in California’s own Joshua Tree National Park), and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the American influence really shines through on the newer tracks. Show opener “Toumast Tincha,” with its lip-curling, arpeggiated guitar swells and rattlesnake percussion, feels like cruising down the highway in slow motion, gas can in the back seat, with no specific destination and all the time in the world to get there.

Tinariwen“Toumast Tincha”

While some members of the band danced gleefully, making direct eye contact and smiling at the audience, others would rarely open their eyes or move while singing, striking a curious contrast between somber and celebratory. This was clearly a well-heeled crowd who appreciated the uniqueness of the show; their gratitude expressed with a series of French exclamations (“Parfait!” “Merci!”) between each song. After a set leaning heavily on material from their last 2 albums, they were cheered back out for a four-song encore.

Tinariwen are naturals at evoking a sense of mystery and locale. If you like your blues well-traveled and need some time away without leaving the city, catch them on tour at the link below.

Support provided by Vancouver blues duo and best-band-name-ever, The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer.

Grab the new Tinariwen record Emmaar over at ANTI-.

Catch Tinariwen on tour here.