Wrapped in their kaftans, tagelmust (also known as chech – a scarf/turban of up to 12 metres) and adorned with brightly decorated pendant pouches, Tinariwen cut quite a dash on a stage in Scotland.
Tinariwen are a collective of Touareg and Berber musicians from the various countries which border the Sahara. The Touareg are scattered across West and North African and the name Tinariwen means ‘deserts’. It was particularly poignant to see them in this week when the latest round of Touareg rebellion (a series of separatist insurgencies which date back to at least 1916) has been in the news, along with the military coup in Mali.
The founding members of Tinariwen met as refugees in rebel training camps – first under the auspices of recently deposed Colonel Gaddafi and later with other Touareg rebels with whom some of them participated in the 1990 rebellion in Mali. After the Tamanrasset Accords in 1991, it is said that the band members turned their attentions full time to music. However, several of the older members of Tinariwen were unable to be in Edinburgh because of the latest conflict in Mali.
The Tinariwen genre is usually referred to as ‘desert blues’ and it is not necessary to understand any of the languages in which they sing to comprehend the hardship and strife they seek to express. The electric and acoustic guitar riffs and the basslines are at once recognisable as those we know from African-American blues, but they are layered with influences from ancient and modern African styles such as chaabi, raï and assouf. Unlike American blues, however, the lyrics seem to be laden with so much meaning they stretch beyond the musical phrases, like the adversity and suffering of the stateless Touareg is too great to fit.
The set, which was more than 1.5 hours long, began with songs from last year’s Grammy Award-winning Tassili album, which the band has been touring since September 2011. Then followed a selection from their other four albums. For the encore, a sixth musician came on stage to play a flute to which the band performed a mesmerising chant, like a collective moan which held the whole venue in its grasp. The crowd went wild – there was dancing in the aisles and their appreciation was shouted in English and French.
Although Edinburgh has become increasingly cosmopolitan over the 20-odd years I have called it home, it was still a very rare and special treat to see Tinariwen here in all their swaddled glory and being very much appreciated by the local audience. The band have a long way to go before they return to their conflict and coup-ravaged home of Mali, but hopefully they will remember fondly their short stop in Scotland’s capital.
A version of this post is also on my Edinburgh reviews blog.
© Lynn Sheppard (words and pictures)