Tinariwen combines familiar sounds with an unusual origin story.
Live in Paris
The group, whose name loosely translates as “Deserts,” comprises eight or nine members (its size varies) of the Kel Tamasheq (aka Tuareg), a nomadic people who have inhabited the Sahara on land now within the borders of Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Tinariwen’s sound is utterly mesmerizing; it features layers of rhythmic clapping; a deep grooving bass line; hand drums; ringing, bluesy guitar lines and gritty male harmonies. It’s as if a group of Otis Redding acolytes were singing in a West African language. Their songs are about longings for peace and independence.
Their new recording “Live in Paris” (Anti-) documents the final show of a 130-stop tour, and it captures their concerts’ energy vividly. The recording features Lalla Badi, the 75-year-old Tuareg singer, on three tracks, and her husky voice makes a nice complement to the various lead singers and harmonies of Tinariwen. Two other highlights are “Tamatant Tiley” and “Toumast Tincha,” each a track that combines the group’s appealing rhythms with stinging, pungent guitar licks reminiscent of early tracks from Neil Young and Crazy Horse. These numbers are emblematic of the appeal of Tinariwen; they embrace musical traditions ranging from Algerian Raï and Malian Takamba to classic rock and soul with the greatest of ease.
Tinariwen was founded more than 20 years ago by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who became obsessed with guitar after seeing one on TV in a western. He built his first instrument using a tin can, a stick and a bicycle brake cable.
During the late ’70s, Mr. Ag Alhabib fell in with a group of musicians exploring local music as well as that of international acts like Led Zeppelin, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Santana. The Sahara is an area plagued by episodes of sectarian violence, and Mr. Ag Alhabib spent much of the ’80s engaged in military action. After the Tamanrasset Accords, a 1991 peace agreement, he and several friends put down their guns and took up music full time. During the ’90s, they gained a following in the Tuareg communities of North Africa. After a cassette reached producers in France, they became popular world-wide in the past 15 years. They have recorded six albums and attracted such collaborators as guitarist Nels Cline, violinist Fats Kaplin, and members from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, TV on the Radio and Chavez. Their 2011 recording, “Tassili” (Anti-), won a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album.
Each of Tinariwen’s recordings have been compelling, but their live shows are magical celebrations.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.