This blog began as a Middle Eastern travel blog. A Jewish philanthropic group sent me overseas on an adventure. But last week, it that overseas adventure came back to follow me. It came to me when I saw the Malian Tuareg (now Azawadian as a result of the recent Tuareg victory in the country's civil war) band Tinariwen.
But I'm not going to talk about the bloody conflict in Mali. Tinariwen's back story is actually so interesting that it threatens to overshadow the music, and I get the feeling that they'd rather reach us through music than give us a history lesson.
I saw them first at Warsaw, a great ballroom located in a Polish community center in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Then someone at the Warsaw show invited me to a taping of a special for MTV Iggy a few days later. The venue for the special was pretty rough. There were people and cameras on cranes everywhere and it started late. But when they came on, it was worth it. That doesn't happen with most acts.
I was introduced to Tinariwen via an article that I only read out of anger. It was Spin's "100 Greatest Guitarists of All-time." The list got a lot of people's attention by naming Skrillex as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, which makes about as much sense as calling Steve Jobs one of the greatest DJs of all time. Why I bothered to check out the list I can't say, but it's probably the same reason that some liberals watch Fox News.
But, in any case, I'm glad I did check it out, because, right near Skrillex (Spin's 100th favorite guitarist) was a bit about former Tinariwen member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib (Spin's 94th favorite guitarist).
I read Spin's blurb and thought, "I love foreign rock." When I think of foreign rock, I think of the type who sound like quirky translations of Anglo-American rock.
When I first checked out Tinariwen, I expected to hear something like the music on the Waking Up Scheherezade compilations. But that wasn't what I got. The first other band I thought of was the Dap-Kings, who sound "old," but do it with such ease, you can easily forget they're actually trying to get that sound.
The Dap-Kings were the first reference point I thought of, but Tinariwen don't even sound like them. Tinariwen aren't neo-classic rock. They don't play Western-sounding songs or even Western chords and scales, and their drummer uses only his hands.
They've probably listened to classic American and British rock, and every note from their guitar sounds mesmerizing in a way that recalls Hendrix, Gallagher, and Dave Davies of the Kinks. But the resemblance to classic rock-guitar music feels coincidental. What they share with Western guitar heroes is more ethereal sort of spirit, not a musicoogical heritage.
Tinariwen have released 4 studio albums, which are all good. But what the albums made me feel, on top of "This music sounds awesome," was "I have to see them live."
I did. And so should anyone who likes music, I think.
When we Westerners hear recordings of Western artists, our connection with them that comes from having a vague idea of what they might be like. And this vague idea doesn't just come from seeing pictures or videos of them- it comes from sharing a general cultural background.
When we see, for example, the Rolling Stones, we're amazed and surprised, but, in a way, we knew what to expect. The recording draws dots and the live show connects them.
Tinariwen didn't connect the dots, though. They drew new shapes entirely.
I grew up in Albany, NY, which has a large population of refugees and immigrants from around the world. I grew up surrounded by world music. In fact, I was forced, against my will, to not only listen to it but participate in it. Every year, there was a "Festival of Nations" where Greeks twirled to cassettes playing bouzouki music, Africans chanted and simulated traditional rituals, and I begrudgingly performed Israeli dances for the synagogue elders.
At the end of the festival would always be some more professional musicians and dancers, who, in retrospect, might have been annoyed that they were lumped in with American ten-year-olds. I was always a bit uncomfortable around them, and I think I know why: they were expected to represent their nationalities in a comforting, simplified package. I didn't like it, so I figured they didn't, either.
In retrospect, the full-grown Ethiopians playing drums got paid to do it, or at the very least weren't just doing it because their Hebrew teacher thought it would be a good advertisement for Sunday school.
Anyway, the thing about Tinariwen is that they seem to be free of all of that. They bear traditions, but they're unorthodox. They dress in exotic robes and sing in an exotic language, but when they dance and banter with the audience (usually in French- they don't speak much English), they're not asking you to admire them as an anthropological artifact. They're asking you to like them and follow them wherever they're going even if you have no idea what they're singing about.
They ask you to make a big leap of faith that they're up to something cool even if you have no way to process it, and that leap of faith pays off.
They take you on a journey to North Africa, but it's not a touristic journey to a land uncorrupted by modern civilization. It's a journey through the modern North Africa, where "third world" peoples use "first world" gadgets, but use them in ways we never thought of ourselves.
It's a reminder that the rest of the world isn't a world of lutes made of goat skin. The rest of the world has access to our fancy guitars, and they're playing them in ways we never thought of.
To find out when you can see Tinariwen live, check their Songkick page.
I just talked about myself. How about you talk about yourself?