Tinariwen’s Desert Blues Galvanizes Chapel Hill

Tinariwen - Photo by Jan Kook
Tinariwen – Photo by Jan Kook


On a dismal, dark, February night world music fans chased away the winter chill at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall with the kickoff off of Tinariwen’s 2010 North American tour. The elegantly robed and turbaned, Saharan desert blues group played to a packed house of eager fans, heating up Memorial Hall and banishing all thoughts of the icy rain outside.

Desert or Saharan blues is a bit of a misnomer in describing Tinariwen’s music. The group’s combination of electric guitars, bass, percussion and vocals is perhaps better described as North African indigenous folk wrapped around rock and roll with a veneer of blues filling in the rough edges. Their call-and-response vocals, as well as the heavy, revolving rhythms are boldly North African, but Tinariwen galvanizes their sound with electric guitar and bass playing so fine as to make any Mississippi juke joint crowd beg for more. Think of Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix emerging from a long sojourn in the Sahara.

Opening with an electrified acoustic guitar, bass, electric guitar, percussionist and female backup singer, Tinariwen took to the stage in flowing iridescent costumes flashing against a dark background and began to weave their exotic spell. The first couple of numbers received eager, polite applause from the audience and I got the impression of an awkward first meeting – where we didn’t quite know what to make of each other, both audience and group. One of Tinariwen’s composers, vocalists and guitarists, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, insisted on calling to the audience after each number, “”Ça va?” before switching to English and asking, “‘S okay?” He was soon greeted with cheers.


Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni (Tinariwen) - Photo by Jan Kook
Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni (Tinariwen) – Photo by Jan Kook


Swapping out an electric guitar for the acoustic guitar, Tinariwen hit its stride, permeating every nook and cranny of Memorial Hall with fiery guitar licks, those powerful vocals and rhythms the auditorium isn’t likely to hear again. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib took to the stage and the groove evolved into something that can only be described as hypnotic. With heads bobbing, toes tapping and hands clapping the audience fell under the spell of these musical mesmerists.

Mr. Alhousseyni and lone female backup singer Wonou Walet Sidati, who let loose with the occasional vocal ululation, took turns center stage to dance, while Tinariwen’s bassist, Eyadou Ag Leche, grooved along with a few shuffling dance moves and kicks of his own, all without missing a turn in the music. Even a few brave souls in the audience shook loose the winter blues with a little fanny shaking from the aisles.

In the perfect concert there comes a point where it’s difficult to tell who is having more fun, the audience or the musicians. Tinariwen stepped over this line early and made it clear that their enjoyment of music is deeply felt and meant it to be infectious. And, who could resist the bright, shiny guitar lines, haunting call-and-response vocals and a fierce percussionist, Said Ag Ayad, who pounded out such extraordinary rhythms on a single drum? Tinariwen cast its delicious spell over the audience, so much so that the group was urged back on stage for another two numbers by a rousing standing ovation.


Wonou Walet Sidati (Tinariwen) - Photo by Jan Kook
Wonou Walet Sidati (Tinariwen) – Photo by Jan Kook


Coming from a country plagued by war, famine, poverty and drought, Tinariwen is stunning triumph of what is possible through music. It would be impossible to separate the message of the Tuaregs’ suffering and longing for self determination from Tinariwen’s music, but it would be equally impossible to separate out the sheer joyfulness and generosity of the Tuareg spirit apparent in their performance. Tinariwen casts a large shadow across the sands and rightly so.

Buy the group’s CDs, DVDs and MP3 downloads:

North American Tour Dates:


15 University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC

16 Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH

18 Highline Ballroom,New York, NY

19 The Bell House, Brooklyn, NY

20 UCLA, Los Angeles, CA

21 San Francisco Jazz Festival, San Francisco, CA

23 Triple Door, Seattle WA

25 Orpheum, Vancouver, Canada

27 Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago IL


4 The Phoenix, Toronto, Canada

5 Club Soda, Montreal, Canada

6 Palais Montcalm, Quebec, Canada


26 Central Park Summerstage New York NY

Author: TJ Nelson

TJ Nelson is a regular CD reviewer and editor at World Music Central. She is also a fiction writer. Check out her latest book, Chasing Athena’s Shadow.

Set in Pineboro, North Carolina, Chasing Athena’s Shadow follows the adventures of Grace, an adult literacy teacher, as she seeks to solve a long forgotten family mystery. Her charmingly dysfunctional family is of little help in her quest. Along with her best friends, an attractive Mexican teacher and an amiable gay chef, Grace must find the one fading memory that holds the key to why Grace’s great-grandmother, Athena, shot her husband on the courthouse steps in 1931.

Traversing the line between the Old South and New South, Grace will have to dig into the past to uncover Athena’s true crime.


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