We’re thrilled to welcome back Neeko, one of our first contributors, to share his take on a show that took place on March 13 at Wellington Town Hall in his current home country, New Zealand.
Live music is the greatest thing in the world. (Except for maybe a nice MLT: a mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky, I love that!) When the recipe is just right, live music makes your body move in strange ways, it sends your thoughts reeling, and causes your face to contort in weird expressions of joy. The music of Tinariwen accomplishes all of this simply and effortlessly with the most basic of ingredients- melody, harmony, and a heavy dose of rhythm.
Tinariwen are an influential group of nomadic Tuareg-Berber musicians whose career spans more than four decades. They performed last week in Wellington, New Zealand as part of the 2012 NZ International Arts Festival. Each year, the Arts Festival provides a great opportunity to catch events and performances from many incredible Kiwi and international artists, writers, and musicians (many of whom might otherwise skip over this tiny island nation in the South Pacific). This year’s festival program has been no exception and I’ve seen some incredible productions so far, but nothing quite as soul-stirring as Tinariwen’s performance.
I was first introduced to the music of Tinirawen a few years back when a friend suggested that, since I liked Jimi Hendrix and the Talking Heads, I would most definitely dig Tinariwen. Intrigued by this unusual sales pitch, I downloaded their album Aman Iman:Water is Life and gave it an attentive listen. Many bands have rhythm, but not all bands have ‘groove’. Simply put, this band has groove. This band oozes groove and soul, and even if you don’t understand the words they are singing, you know exactly what they are singing about. There is a sense of timeless urgency in this music, an urgency one only acquires from living an uncertain, nomadic existence in the Sahara Desert. Many of their songs, even the slower ballads, are built upon a simple formula: percussion + guitars + big harmonic refrains = groove. Their live show does not betray this formula.
My girlfriend and I arrive at Town Hall Auditorium about five minutes before the billed start time, grab a drink and quickly find our seats – dead center, eight rows back. After a brief wait, Tinariwen take to the stage (two of the six members of Tinariwen were unable to make the trip to NZ due to a “dramatic escalation in the conflict in the region of north Mali where they live”). There is something surreal and striking about the visual of four men in beautiful, flowing, traditional Taureg garb on a stage, faces covered, strapped to acoustic and electric guitars and standing in front of glowing, humming electric guitar amps with smoke machine and stage lights at full intensity. This is not something you normally see on a Tuesday night in Wellington. After a few uncomfortable moments of silence and amplifier crackle, the music begins with a repetitive, droning, open-tuned guitar riff and just as so many of their songs do, it builds from there: guitar, then the bass, then the percussion, then the vocals. It only takes Tinariwen about four bars to settle into a tight, comfortable groove, and they do this successfully over and over with each song.
A new tune begins and the new groove is quickly established. Droning guitar, djembe percussion, bouncing bass, repetitive chanting chorus… I want to know the language so I can sing along! There’s a lot of improvisation and communication going on between the musicians on stage. Songs stretch out to six or seven minutes as guitar solos fly across a pillowy cushion of steady pulsing rhythms. When each song ends I find myself rocking in my seat to the lingering beats, anxious for the next tune to begin. Part of this restlessness comes from the fact that we are crammed into tiny rows of folding chairs. So much of this music demands a physical reaction from the audience, and the band deserves to feed off of the energy from that reaction. The Town Hall floor, usually standing room for restrained Kiwi audiences to self-consciously sway and head bop, is laid out this night into a tightly packed grid of ill-padded plastic chairs the width of one butt cheek – not really conducive to exuberant dance. (I suppose you can’t complain about seating conditions when the performers come from a war-torn region of the Sahara Desert. “My seat’s not comfy! I want a bigger cushion!” “Oh, poor you. I live in the DESERT. We don’t even HAVE chairs.”)
Between songs, the members of Tinariwen jump from guitar to bass to percussion, endlessly mixing up the instrumentation – something that might be distracting in the hands of less competent musicians. The only potential distraction of the night other than the seating conditions (and the silently flatulent man to our left), is the stage banter, limited by a language barrier to a few simple phrases and repeated to the point of near-absurdity between each song: ‘Hallo’, ‘Is okay?’, ‘Ca va’, ‘Welcome to the desert.’ (Although, not a total loss, as I’ve found myself amusedly repeating these phrases to bewildered coworkers and one mildly annoyed girlfriend in days since). As the show continues, the grooves persist, and a few restless audience members are compelled to move and dance their way into the aisles to the far left and right of the stage. Some well placed breaks from the frenetic, percussive pace provide softer moments, some of which prove to be the most poignant of the night. One highlight in particular which featured all four members on vocals, joined by a fifth musician with a wooden flute, had the audience on the edge of their plastic seats, holding their breath in near-reverence.
Like so many bands I’ve fallen in love with over the years, the energy of Tinariwen’s music transcends culture and personal experience- and it is and energy best experienced live. Tinariwen are on tour in Europe now and have a fairly packed schedule through May. They perform a few select dates in the US in June, including the Wakarusa Music Festival and a performance at Croton Park in NY State, and I would highly recommend taking the opportunity to see them for yourself. If you do get the chance to see them, try to find floor space with enough room to move. The groove demands it!