Tinariwen: Sahara Gets Plugged In

Tinariwen pass through the WUK with the musical ethos of a place few will ever visit

On The Town | Christopher Anderson | October 2011

On a recent September evening, as an unusually hot summer spell still lingered in the Viennese air, concert-goers packed into the hall of WUK to experience the passage of a very special troupe of musical nomads. Although the crowd arrived stripped down to shorts and T-shirts for the show in the standing-room-only Werkstätten- und Kulturhaus (WUK, or House of Workshops and Culture), the band stepped on stage wrapped from head to toe in swaths of fabric, leaving only their sun-tanned faces and hands exposed to the damp air that humidified with the completion of each movement-inducing tune.

The members are part of a collective of Tuareg musicians touring under the moniker Tinariwen, meaning "many deserts" in their native Tamasheq language. Hailing from the sands of the Sahara somewhere along the incessantly shifting borders of Algeria, Mali and Libya, the group was visiting Vienna for at least their second time, on a road that has led them all over the world.

Since its founding in 1979 by lead-singer Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, this rotating group of musicians has represented the ethos of the desert people. On this particular tour, the sextet included auxiliary singer Adballah Ag Alhousseyni, who opened the concert. After the first tune, he asked the crowd, "Comment dire ‘merci’ en autrichienne?" ("How do you say ‘thanks’ in Austrian?)

A few francophones shouted out "Danke schön!" For the remainder of the evening, he showed his appreciation with the newly-learned words, some of the many which he has learned on his travels.

The other members included a sole percussionist, Eyadou Ag Leche, who played either a djembe or a bowl-shaped drum, and provided a poly-rhythmic cadence, a tattoo to clap with on or off the beat, an audience of colliding atoms swaying to whichever rhythm spoke the most.

After the four opening tunes, Alhousseyni handed the mic to the group’s founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the only one exposing a bristling coiffe, a solemn visage of experience and wisdom. During his solo, a mournful lament, he lightly plucked his guitar with his thumb and fingers, constantly clicking his nail on the metal string, the haunting voice of a lonely night in the desert. The crowd began to clap to the cadence, summoning the percussionist to return to the bowl-shaped drum, as Ag Alhabib stared up into the beam of light like a full moon, a slight frown of age on his moustached mouth.

By far the most charismatic of the group was an elder, a dancer in an olive-green cloak who enchanted the spectators, clapping and waving his hands over the sea of bobbing heads as if to summon energy, then spinning at times with his arms raised, an eternal smile radiating from his weather-worn face. He was the showman of the night, and brought many smiles to the faces of those in attendance.

If the eternal message of music evoked a vibe suitable enough for an evening of enjoyment, the  message in their lyrics added an element of longing that the listeners missed, lost in translation.

"What have you got to say my friends[...]? You’ve left this desert where you say you were born," as the lyrics of "Imidiwan Ma Tennam", the first track off their recent album Tassili conveys. "[…] the desert is jealous and its men are strong, while it’s drying up, green lands exist elsewhere."

"It’s not too hot underneath all that?" I asked bassist Ag Leche in French after the show in the courtyard, as old and newborn fans gathered around for a picture and a quick chat.

"No, we’re used to it. It keeps us cool."

And where did "the dancer" learn to dance, I asked another member of the group, a tall sub-Saharan also in the emblematic Tagelmust turban and veil.

"From the camel," he replied with a great white smile spread across his dark face. "That’s how the camels dance when you ride them." Ah, that explains it.

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