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CP at SXSW: Tinariwen brings west African campfire to Austin

March 17, 2014

003A lot of bands at South by Southwest go to great lengths to appear strange and exotic. The great Malian band Tinariwen outdid them all without even trying.

Tinariwen launched the desert-rock movement by electrifying the Tuareg tribe’s traditional folk music in the 1980s and by reaching out to European audiences with recordings and tours in the early ‘00s.

When the five musicians from the Saharan desert took the stage at the Bungalow Thursday night, they all wore floor-length caftans—blue, peach or silver—often with white head wraps that covered their hair, neck and mouths. And when they plugged in their electric guitars and bass and started playing their droning campfire songs beneath songs sung in their native language, it was as if we in the audience were around an oasis bonfire too.

But there was more to the music than just its unfamiliar foreignness; there was a musical ingenuity the way the guitars’ repeating broken chords were stacked and subtly varied. Over these prickly motifs, the voices sustained certain vowels till the tension between the stabbing guitar parts straining against the steady vocals grew quite powerful. This simple but effective sonic strategy has so much potential that’s just now being explored.

Two of those explorations could be heard Friday night at the Speakeasy. Lo’Jo is a French folk-rock band that fell in love with Tinariwen in 1999 and began incorporating North African elements into their sound. Founder Denis Pean looks like a 1950s French gangster from a Jean-Pierre Melville movie and sings like Leonard Cohen in a recitative baritone. Richard Bourreau lit up these meditations with virtuosic violin that slipped back and forth between the European and African traditions.

Two older women added their higher, more supple voices to Pean’s conversational grounding, and a young rhythm section gave the folkloric elements a muscular push. The result was a strange blend of Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin with Tinariwen, between the crowded cities of France and the empty deserts of northern Mali. It was quite effective and suggested that desert-rock can be put to many different uses.

An even stranger use was demonstrated by the following band, Imarhan Timbuktu. The band is another desert-rock band from northern Mali’s Tuareg tribe. But they are touring North America without a rhythm section, so they recruited a bassist and drummer from the Navajo American-Indian tribe for their SXSW show. The lead singer was an older man in the traditional desert costume, but his guitar parts had been refined into easy-to-grasp riffs that almost became pop hooks. The nearly seven-foot Navajo drummer added a rolling sway to the music, however, that gave it a whole different dimension from Tinariwen.