Live Review: Tinariwen – Somerset House, London

Tinariwen perform at Somerset House, London (14/07/2023) (Photo: WHAT A TUNE)

An enthralling and hypnotic performance from the masters of the desert blues.

The role Tinariwen has played in the emergence of Tuareg rock as an internationally recognised genre cannot be overstated. More widely, their iconic sound, electrified blues mixed with traditional West African music, propelled the growth of World Music in The West at the turn of the century.

Born from Colonel Gaddafi’s Libyan military camps in the 1970s where the band’s founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib gathered other young men to sing and play instruments, Tinariwen today are legendary figures.

Ask any desert blues band today and they’ll cite Tinariwen as a major influence on their music.

Tinariwen translates to “People of the desert” in the Tamashek language, and their roots lie with the displaced Tuareg people, who live a nomadic life in the Sahara, as colonisation saw their homeland divided into Niger, Libya, Algeria and Mali.

Since their formation, the band has gone on to have international success, picking up a Grammy Award along the way. This year sees the band play Glastonbury (not their first time), and this London show is a stop off on their world tour.

It’s a classic British summer evening; it was raining an hour before their set starts and the temperature is chilly. The band arrives, enveloped in their traditional blue and green robes, faces partially covered by their turbans, and starts to play. The transportive effect is immediate; the warmth of their voices singing in Tamashek, rolling guitar lines, and the rhythmic pat of the djembe and other hand drums is enthralling.

Tinariwen at Somerset House, London (14/07/2023) (Photo: WHAT A TUNE)

Assalamu alaikum” founding member Abdallah ag Alhousseini nods to the crowd.

Alhousseini leads the 8-piece, made up of original members and touring musicians, with calm and confidence. Between singing and shredding on guitar, he slowly walks forwards and backward holding the long end of his turban partially aloft turning his wrist in a ritualistic movement.

“Welcome to the Sahara.” He smiles.

Ibrahim ag Alhabib (now in his 60s), appears after the first song and, after joining in backing vocals, is instantly more at home once he picks up his guitar, fingers moving seamlessly across the fretboard. He doesn’t say much, except “shokran, thank you”, but as the group’s main founder, he holds a quiet command and charisma, over the band and crowd.

The group released their ninth album, Amatssou, this year. Their music hasn’t changed much since the release of their debut album The Radio Tisdas Sessions over 20 years ago. But it’s a sound you can’t get tired of, it has a a timeless appeal, hinged on hypnotic desert grooves, echoed by countless North African musicians after them.

They close with Sastanàqqàm, where the guitar riffs escalate into psychedelic improvisation for a feverish finale.

Total Score
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