TINARIWEN live at the Bronson Club, Ravenna 16th April 2012

There aren’t many live shows you can truly call spectacular but this the word that most accurately describes the mind-blowing ninety minute set Tinariwen played at this small, packed venue.

Dressed head to toe in desert robes (thawbs) the five performers both look and sound amazing.

While this is a band with good reason to sing the blues I was struck by how upbeat and joyous their music was.

NPR described their sound as “trance music with attitude” since while the vocals are plaintive and melancholy, the extraordinary guitar rhythms are hypnotic and energizing. It is electric blues is both familiar and singular – no Western band plays like this.

The band name Tinariwen translates as “the deserts”, the plural form denotes the fact that ,in Tuareg terms, the Sahara Desert is not a single entity but one of many.

Theirs is a sound that makes the idea of language barriers redundant – you don’t need to understand the words they sing to get the intensity of the feeling. Needless to say, between song chat is not an option for this concert; they struggle with the pronunciation for ‘Grazie’ and ‘Ravenna’ and one of the band resorts to a comical repetition of the question “Ca va? It’s ok?” . Gestures like this are far preferable to the sullen silence many artists adopt so as to appear ‘cool’. The sensuous (and pregnant?) singer and dancer, Mina, also helps to create a party atmosphere.

The winning of the Grammy award for the group’s fifth album Tassili is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand it extends their international recognition and gives them a worldwide profile they fully deserve. At the same time, this award tends to reward conservative, mainstream acts more than more radical or experimental artists . Mass attention leads to the ignominy of  the patronising, dumbed down presentations of their music on  The Colbert Report and carries the risk of  live shows being sabotaged by Bono.

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib - sadly absent from Tinariwen's European tour.

It would , however be wrong to think that they have lost their radical edge.  Thankfully,  the opening track (Imidiwan Ma Tenam) is evidence that their roots are still the driving force – it begins with the line “What have you got to say, my friends, about this painful time we’re living through?”

It’s hardly possible for them to forget their origins when two of the band’s key members are stranded because of the conflicts in their troubled homeland. Tinariwen’s management have said that Ag Alhabib and vocalist and guitarist Elaga Al Hamid are sheltering in a refugee camp near the Algerian border and are unable to get out due to crossfire between the MLNA rebels and the Malian Army.

I was particularly disappointed not to see Ibrahim, who is the most striking looking of the group, standing out because he doesn’t hide his impressive semi-afro hair beneath the headscarf all the other men wear.

However, the quality of the music at the Bronson club is testament to the fact that this is a musical collective in which to talk of band leaders is inappropriate.

Their message is universal and carries the same spirit that gave birth to the blues. It  is music which communicates strength and resistance and symbolises the human capacity to get up and stand up against injustice and oppression. And, above all, Tinariwen are  a welcome reminder that all true rebel music is celebratory.

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