Tinariwen at the Mandela Hall
Belfast Festival: Tinariwen
Mandela Hall, Belfast
25th October 2011
Of the many delectable prospects at this year’s Belfast Festival, Saharan blues band Tinariwen are up there with the most noteworthy.
A group of Tuareg musicians originally hailing from Mali but formed in a Libyan refugee camp over 30 years ago, their distinctive desert sound stands as an expression of hope and autonomy in a world undergoing upheaval more than ever before. Tonight they enlighten Belfast with their awe-inspiring craft.
As expected, the turn-out tonight is squarely divided between avid fans and the curious, both offering excited applause when, kitted out in full desert regalia, Tinariwen (minus founder/frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib) emerge on the trancelike ‘Mano Dayak’. Immediately, the self-taught virtuosity of the band — guitarist and vocalist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni in particular — is fully revealed. ‘Issekad’ and ‘A Dunya’ follow, two hypnotic tracks in which bassist Eyadou Ag Leche provides a fixed groove that persists throughout the set.
A walking definition of “cool and collected”, Tinariwen founder Ag Alhabib eventually takes to the stage during ‘El Ghalem’, a buoyant number that leads into ‘Assuf D’Alwa’, easily one of the more meditative tracks from the band’s recent album, Tassili. Seeing most of the band unite on vocal duties, it epitomises a melancholy that pervades much of Tinariwen’s music; a sentiment that entrances the crowd before they spring like a coil during the droning, two-chord elegy, ‘Imidiwan Win Sahara’.
Making their way through a first-rate set of both old and brand new material, ‘Walla Illa’ sees most of tonight’s fully-involved audience sway and dance in delighted abandonment to Tinariwen’s spell whilst the fantastic ‘Amassakoul’ — with Ag Alhabib’s soul-searching, discordant refrains on guitar — effortlessly evokes a would-be collaboration between Kenyan/American outfit Extra Golden and Seattle drone-rock masters Earth.
To call the mood at this point celebratory would be a serious understatement. Whether unconsciously underpinned by a global focus on the revolutions associated with the Arab Spring and right across the globe, there is a palpable sense of music’s eternal, transcendent value throughout Tinariwen’s festive set tonight. And for a group of musicians well aware of the trials incurred by oppression in their native land, their tales are an upbeat testament to self-belief and goodwill.
Indeed, from the frantic jubilation of ‘Assawt N'chet Tamashek’ — one of many tracks exposing virtuoso musicianship and Tinariwen’s wonderful spirit — to Ag Alhabib’s Tuarag rap-led ‘Arawan’, the general perception of Belfast crowds as being shy and retiring at gigs is clearly in some need of repair. Attending to every leap and beat of percussionist Said Ag Ayad, inhibitions go straight out the window and stay there.
At the end up and despite their repetitive patterns and general cyclical nature, Tinariwen’s music is recurring only to the music’s advantage. Where restlessness would crop up in other set-ups, this small group of gifted Malian musicians are true masters of the jam, natural heirs to rock and roll greats The Who and Led Zeppelin, not to mention masters of their own inimitable sound.
And so, concluding proceedings via sprightly closer ‘Cler Achel’, everyone goes home having witnessed art transcending everything that strives to set us apart; music firmly rooted in unity, survival and a collective search for peace.