Live Review

Tinariwen live at The Triffid

It's a rare occasion that Australian fans get to see Saharan rock legends Tinariwen in the flesh. In fact this is the first time ever that they have done a headlining tour of this country - previously they have come as part of festival lineups. So there is a packed room and a definite buzz at The Triffid to welcome them.

First up though is support act Fred Leone. Once upon a time if you saw Fred on stage in Fortitude Valley it would have been dropping rhymes as Rival MC, but these days he has a much more uncommon musical role - a conduit between the ancient musical tradition of the aboriginal songman and the modern ritual of the performance stage. "This song is 60,000 years old" is how he introduces one tune, and others are described with their relevance to learning traditional hunting and harvesting skills.

Fred's hip hop roots do come through in a bit of crowd participation, and his natural charisma helps keep the audience's rapt attention - connecting us with the countless generations who have gathered to sing and dance in the place. For Fred's last song he is joined by Arnhem Land songman Yirrmal for an epic vocal performance as well.

After a short break in which few people risked a bar trip for fear of losing their spot in the packed room, Tinariwen emerged onto the stage. As ever, they looked amazing in shiny cloaks and their faces wrapped in scarves. The scarves of course are purely aesthetic here - not only are we unlikely to get a Saharan dust storm in the middle of Brisbane, the crowd is so tightly packed no one can really kick up much dust on the dancefloor. Not for lack of invitation mind you - even besides the joyful, funky, polyrhythmic music itself, there is always at least one band member at the front of the stage dancing unencumbered by the guitar.

The membership of Tinariwen is a rotating cast which has allowed the band to survive over four decades and wildly varying circumstances - from refugee camps, civil wars and the death of band members to fame and world tours. Tonight longstanding band members Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and Alhassane Ag Touhami take their turns on lead guitar and vocals but also take breaks and leave the playing up to the younger members.

And there is something so special about the interplay between members. Something about the spaces in between. The funky bass, lead guitar and hand drumming are all busy, but they leave room for each other band member to make their own mark. It all comes across as a total joy in playing together - no wonder all these Western rockstars want to join in the fun for guest spots! But tonight there no superstar cameos, just a group of Tuareg men playing together like they might at a desert campfire, sharing their music with us on the other side of the world.

"Welcome to the Sahara desert - you happy?" Ibrahim says a few times through the show. By the third or fourth time it gets a few chuckles - his extremely limited English is obviously the limit of their literal communication. But we definitely were happy, and it did feel a bit like we were being transported somehow to the band's Tuareg homelands. The lyrics, not that we can understand them, are often about everyday desert life; the music somehow with its snaking guitar lines and open spaces evoking the desert landscape; and that communal atmosphere giving a hint of how Tuareg people can manage to thrive in that harsh landscape.

After two hours of being fully entranced by the hypnotic and beautiful music, a few hundred smiling faces walked back onto the Brisbane streets. But for a while it really did feel like we had been to the Sahara desert with what is truly one of the world's great rock bands.

- Words by Andy Paine
- Picture by Andy Paine


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