SXSW Live Shot: Tinariwen

Desert blues and the Tuareg two-step

Introduced as the godfathers of desert blues and the group that brought Tuareg music to the international stage, Tinariwen melted minds with 45 minutes of swirling guitar grooves and percussion Friday night.

Photo by Sandy Carson

The hypnotic desert drone is perfect for wandering around your own head space like the Tuareg people have traversed the sands of the Sahara for centuries. Their songs unfurl at a decidedly unhurried pace, as if time itself has a different meaning for nomads. If there’s no destination, who cares how long it takes to get there?

Political turmoil has left Tinariwen in exile and their sixth and latest album, Emmaar, was recorded at Joshua Tree in California’s Mojave Desert. The bulk of the set-list pulled from that recent effort and 2011’s Tassili, but my Tamashek language skills could use some brushing up, so it was hard for these ears to tell. The band essentially does one thing, but that one thing’s absolutely mesmerizing.

Playing as a fivepiece, the group from northern Mali was dressed for a desert trek, donning traditional robes and taguelmoust head scarves. There wasn’t much dancing onstage, but when the groove was thick, one of the vocalists would lift the tail of his long scarf above his head and shuffle from side to side with a subtle grin.

From Mali to Texas, call it the Tuareg two-step.

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