"Welcome to the desert," said Tinariwen's Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, the singer in palest blue robes who orchestrated our clapping with his elegant gestures and spacious dance moves. The Carrboro, North Carolina audience swarmed in unison as if to say, "Yes please. Take me to your campfire."
Frontman and founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, he of the trademark loose mane, was missing, as on other recent U.S. tours. I heard it said it's due to visa problems. Fear not, though, filling his lead guitar and vocalist shoes is Sadam Iyar Imarhan, who sounds and even looks eerily like a younger version of Ibrahim. Sadam doesn't speak much English, but a Mauritanian friend helped me to understand he's been with the group for just one month, and is a cousin of bandmember Hassan (not currently on the tour). All the rest of Tinariwen are long-time members.
"Desert Blues" is at once perfectly evocative, and yet somehow a woefully inadequate label to describe the the Tuareg sound. The analogy makes historic and visceral sense but only gets you part way there. There's call and response singing, and what seems (to this unstudied observer) to be quite elaborate polyrhythmic and formal structures. Above all, the poetic trancey vibe is unlike anything else, and highly addictive. But as trancey as it gets, it always feels like the songs follow ancient forms. Nonetheless, there's plenty of room in there for ecstatic transport, and a quality of being fully in the moment.
This kind of jibes with something Eyadou told me after the set. Still looking incredibly youthful after 15 years with the band, he told me Tuaregs think differently about age and time.
"In the desert, we don't [celebrate] birthdays. I am living today. Every day is my happy birthday."
--Tinariwen bassist Eyadou Ag Leche
For the encore set, Abdallah took up guitars and lead vocal for some acoustic and electric stuff. Here's a few moments featuring bass and guitar solos from Eyadou and Abdallah:
The new album is called Emmaar; the vinyl edition with free CD inside sold for $25 at the merch table.
Tinariwen band webpage