JBEIL, Lebanon: With electric guitar riffs carried on hot, North African winds, Tinariwen welcome you to the desert. The world-renowned band of Tuareg musicians from Northern Mali closed the 2012 Byblos Festival Wednesday night, introducing their bluesy desert rock to a small, yet devoted, crowd of African music enthusiasts.
In traditional Tuareg regalia of black or white turbans and billowing colored robes, the six touring members of Tinariwen played a generous and uncompromising set, sampling numbers from their Grammy Award-winning 2011 release “Tassili,” as well as songs from their earlier, acclaimed albums “Aman Iman” (Water is life) and “Imidiwan” (Companions).
Often described as desert blues or Saharan rock, Tinariwen’s style is based on Tuareg melodies, traditionally played on a shepherd’s flute, but transferred to the medium of acoustic and electric guitars. With Berber, Arabic and African elements, the music is the product of wanderers, picking up influences from different peoples and cultures until forming a style unto itself.
“Our music is not readily influenced by anyone in particular,” Tinariwen’s bassist Eyadou Ag Leche told The Daily Star backstage ahead of the concert. “The source of inspiration is the traditional music and the desert environment, and then we found the electric guitar 30 years ago.”
More of a nomadic musical collective than traditional band, Tinariwen – which roughly translates as “deserts” in Tamashek, the language of these Tuareg musicians – has a history that reads like a screenplay, a biography much too long to fit in typical album notes.
Tinariwan’s founding member, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib was driven from his home in Northern Mali as a child after the newly independent state cracked down on a Tuareg revolt in the 1960s.
Alhabib spent the next decade wandering through Algeria, Niger and Libya, joining with bands of Tuareg migrants and fighters – including a force backed at one point by former Libyan dictator Moammar Ghadhafi – writing songs about revolt and the plight of the displaced Tuareg people.
First acquiring a guitar in 1979, Alhabib assembled musicians around him to play Tuareg folk music around campfires, at local events and weddings, slowly building a name first among Tuareg, then throughout North Africa. Their “international discovery” came in 2000, after headlining Mali’s famous Festival au Désert.
Since 1979, musicians of Tinariwen have come and gone, swelling at times to more than 20 members.
Over time, some have opted to go back to their desert lives. Others returned to Mali in 1990 to fight in a second Tuareg revolt. Today, current members – usually a changing group of 6 to 7 musicians – tour major music festivals around the world, landing in Lebanon for the first time Wednesday.
Byblos’ humid night, with ominous clouds rolling above the stage, seemed an appropriate setting to enjoy music born from sweating in the desert.
Despite almost exclusively Tamashek lyrics, Tinariwen convey a powerful sense of longing to their audience. Their songs unfold like a journey and breathe the unmistakable quality of blues – so strong that it’s a surprise to learn the band had never been exposed to blues music until their first tour abroad in 2001.
With percussion powered by a single hand drum, the band’s four acoustic or electric guitars mingled with sandpaper vocals as the robed musicians danced around the stage – despite their thick, layered garb.
Staying true to their unique style, the band added only one cross-over number of sorts – featuring a hip-hop like chorus of a cappella rhyming in a mix of Tamashek and French.
While the crowd of 1,000 paled in comparison to the numbers Byblos drew for Snow Patrol and B.B. King, many in the audience had been specifically awaiting Tinariwen’s performance. The rest were completely absorbed by the captivating performers.
Piles of Birkenstocks accumulated as standing-area spectators kicked off their shoes to move to the , entrancing stream of music, only punctuated by a short, “merci, merci, shukran,” from Tinariwen’s lead vocalist and guitarist Abdallah Ag Alhousseini.
One of the evening’s many highlights included an acoustic guitar number by Alhousseini, who returned to the stage solo for the encore, mesmerizing the audience with a haunting chant before being joined by the other five performers for three additional songs.
The few minutes of stripped down music highlighted the style of the band’s most recent album “Tassili,” recorded on-site in Algeria, near the Libyan border, in tents and around campfires. Previously, band members have described the album – named after a region of striking canyons and sandstone – as inspired by “ishumar,” the spirit of exile or wandering that they experienced in the years before their music became internationally known.
“All that we are is in the desert,” said Leche, who was born in Algeria after his parents fled Mali in the 1960s. “Generally, we are nomadic in the desert but today we are nomadic across the world.”
In August, Tinariwen’s touring members will get a brief respite from their nomadic existence, returning to their families and homes in Mali and Algeria. Uncertain times of upheaval in North Africa await them, yet again, especially in Mali where a coup in March and clashes between government forces, Tuareg and Islamist rebels have made headlines recently.
While violence and upheaval are not new to the members of Tinariwen, the news draws them out of their solemn, musical wandering.
“What’s happening is very hard for us to watch, because we are so far and it’s not easy to understand every problem,” said Leche. “The worst thing is that all the world will see this and not understand and we want them to know that this is not all that we are ... we are here to show our culture, we are international ambassadors.”