Just when you think you've heard it all, guitar-wise, a band like Tinariwen comes along sounding completely different. Even though they've adopted the electric guitar, the desert blues and rock of this Tuareg band is firmly rooted in the Saharan traditions where African and Arabian music meet in a distinctly sparse and, well, deserted sound.
At Paradiso this weekend they showed that it is music meant to be experienced live, in long, trancelike jams evoking the desert in all its awesome desolation. Fittingly, in Tamashek Tinariwen means 'empty places' (the plural of 'Ténéré', meaning 'desert' or just 'empty place').
The band's history is the chronicle of the Tuaregs' struggle for autonomy. The nomadic Berber tribes that once traveled freely across the desert of Algeria, Mali, Libya and Niger were confronted in the 20st century with European-drawn borders and nationalistic politics that all but destroyed their culture. In exile from Mali, the band members met in the early '80s in a rebel camp in Lybia. They took part in the Tuareg Rebellion in 1990 before dedicating themselves to revolution through music.
Self-proclaimed "guitar-poets", Tinariwen have attained a legendary status among their people as a much-needed symbol of unity for the younger generation. The lyrics of their latest album, 'Aman Iman' ('Water is Life'), testify to their struggle to revive the identity and language of a proud and ancient culture. As such, perhaps the closest Western relative of their music is the early blues, which told equally heartfelt stories of oppression, endurance and longing.
At the same time, though, they are rebels who know how to rock, and they got even the somewhat jaded Paradiso world music crowd to join in handclapping, ululating abandon.
See also this interview with Tinariwen manager Andy Morgan.