“I felt this was the music I’d been looking for all my life,” Led Zeppelin once said of Tuareg rock band Tinariwen. When the group took the stage at the UC Theater in Berkeley last weekend, it was impossible not to feel the same. Tinariwen’s indelible blend of traditional Tuareg music and Western rock strikes at the heart of what music can be — a vehicle for community, a vessel for political messaging and an awe-inspiring cultural force.
On tour for the release of its latest studio album, Amatssou, Tinariwen astounded listeners throughout the night. The group’s music sounds the way the desert looks: the electric guitar riffs are slow, pounding and majestic, guided by drum beats and the hollow clapping of hands. The musicians seemed blissful in light of the dancing and shouts from the pit, rocking back and forth as they strummed their guitars, pausing their playing only to utter a low “merci” into the microphones.
The landscape of sound that Tinariwen builds is laden with meaning. The group began when founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib made a guitar from an empty oil can in the deserts of Algeria. An “ishumar,” the Tamashek word for an unemployed Tuareg man, he soon encountered other nomads looking to create change through music, and thus Tinariwen was born.
In 1980, while still making a name for themselves as musicians, the group joined an army created by Muammar al-Gaddafi, which intended to create a single Muslim state in North Africa. Its music soon became infused with messages of political rebellion, traversing the tense environment between Tuareg rebels and the Malian government. In the years that followed, the music collective spread its message all over the world, from its home in the Sahara Desert to the stage of the World Cup.
The Berkeley crowd was frenetic for Tinariwen, dancing for the entirety of the two-hour setlist. Onstage, one of the musicians led dances and clapped rhythms, encouraging the crowd to move along to the swaying music. The other members remained stoic and focused. They were mesmerizing live performers — as the tremor of their melodies echoed into the music hall, the space was filled with a spirited, weighty energy that clamored like a heartbeat.
The members of Tinariwen are always in flux; for decades, the group has welcomed talented musicians from different parts of North Africa into their fold. Descended from traditional Tuareg vocals, the group’s lyrics are always sung in unison. The sound of their voices lies somewhere between singing and chanting, bringing audiences into an almost trance-like state. The band reconciles its traditional vocals with a twangy guitar style, creating Tinariwen’s pioneering mix of the old and new Tuareg sound.
Near the end of their set, the group played one of its older songs, “Mataraden Anexan.” The song balances a beautiful vocal chorus with gritty guitar riffs, once again pulling from both the band’s roots in the Sahara and its Western influences. The track was enchanting performed live, one of the members dancing on stage while the rest of the players sang to the cheering crowd.
Tinariwen was naturally called back onstage for an encore. The last tune began slowly and almost mournfully, with Ag Alhabib singing as he strummed his guitar. It felt appropriate to end the show on such a complex note. The group’s music is layered with meaning and beauty, constantly provoking thought and wonder in listeners. Tinariwen’s stop in Berkeley unsurprisingly left an electric impression. Its languid guitars and haunting vocals rang inside the venue long after the musicians left the stage.