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Live review: Tinariwen at UCLA's Royce Hall

February 21, 2010 |  1:08 pm

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An irresistible musical force descended on Westwood on Saturday night, and it was met with a seemingly immovable object. An eclectic, sold-out crowd of seated music fans had come to UCLA's Royce Hall for Tinariwen, the Tuareg ensemble whose unmistakable interpretation of electric blues has taken it from the harsh climate of the Southern Sahara to a new sort of nomadic life as a growing world music phenomenon.

Yet only a couple of songs into the band’s performance, the potent force of Tinariwen had won out, pulling people into the aisles to move with the loping dance moves of Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, Tinariwen’s veiled and caftan-clad guitarist, during the swirling, mid-tempo epic “Ammasakoul.”

And really, who could blame them? Asking even the most reserved music fan to maintain decorum in the face of such propulsive, immersive sounds is a fairly Herculean request. And something in Tinarawen’s music called a sampling from every sector of the crowd -- graying and elegantly dressed UCLA Live subscribers, faux-fur vested fashionistas and bearded college students -- to rush the stage, raise their arms and bear witness.

Because there’s something inherently spiritual in Tinariwen, a sort of devotional aspect to its performances that transcends the group’s often grim lyrics in its native Tamashek about revolution, regret and an unforgivingly hard homeland. Ultimately, the music is transformed into something cathartic -- joyful even -- that’s impossible to resist. 

Much of this stems from the group’s distinctive hybrid of traditional Tuareg sounds with electric instrumentation, and while longtime bandleader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s biting yet at times ebullient guitar pyrotechnics deservedly receives much of the notice, it’s the popping hand-drum rhythms and subtle counter-melodies of bassist Eyadou Ag Leche that gives the music its entrancing backbone.

Incorporating elements of Malian and Middle Eastern music, as well as a penchant for trance-like guitar figures, Tinariwen’s songs can blend seamlessly into one consistently engrossing whole. Led by Alhabib, “Matadjem Yinmixan,” from the group’s 2007 breakthrough, “Aman Iman: Water Is Life,” was a standout midway through the evening, with its snaking guitar melody and a disarmingly upbeat, singalong chorus. 

Other facets of the group’s global mix emerged, such as Alhousseyni's swaying, hip-hop-like cadence of “Arawan” and the driving “Assawt N’chet Tamashek,” which threatened to tear the roof off Royce Hall as the band shifted into another gear atop fiery acoustic leads from Alhousseyni. The moment hinted at what inspired Santana to join the band at the 2007 Montreaux Jazz Festival.

The evening's globe-trotting agenda began with the Tuvan ensemble Huun-Huur Tu, which offered concertgoers another transformative experience as they hushed the crowd with evocative compositions whose roots date as far back as the 12th century. 

Using rough-hewn instruments that looked as if they could have been of the same vintage, the four-piece group conjured the native sound of its homeland, while also showing the unlikely intersection between the music of a small region north of Mongolia and Appalachian folk. Using a pair of stringed instruments and a mouth harp under a rich vocal rumble that could have spurred a yurt-hosted barn dance, it was the first of many moments that showed not only how enchantingly small our world has become, but also how intertwined it always has been.

-- Chris Barton

Photo: Members of Tinariwen at Royce Hall. Credit: Christina House / For The Times

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