Last Night: Tinariwen at the Palace of Fine Arts

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In 2004, Malian desert blues/rock group Tinariwen first came to the Bay Area with a show at the Great American Music Hall. Since then, they've returned almost every year for shows at Yoshi's or the Palace of Fine Arts. When they appeared again last night at the Palace, many in the audience applauded upon the emcee's mention of that first show -- a testament to the fact that Tinariwen is the sort of band that earns lifetime fans from the first listen.

In 2004, Malian desert blues/rock group Tinariwen first came to the Bay Area with a show at the Great American Music Hall. Since then, they've returned almost every year for shows at Yoshi's and the Palace of Fine Arts. When they appeared again last night at the Palace, many in the audience applauded upon the emcee's mention of that first show -- a testament to the fact that Tinariwen is the sort of band that earns lifetime fans from the first listen.

I am now one of those lifetime fans, though I didn't make it to the GAMH that night. By sheer chance some of my friends did, and they promptly turned me on to a band that has become one of my all-time favorites, one who I've yearned to see for years but never had the chance to until last night.



Following a glowing and anticipatory introduction, one-half of the six-member group took the stage for an acoustic opening song. Just the sight of them in their highly colorful robes and scarves revealing only feet, hands, and eyes was enough to cause a stir amongst the sold-out crowd. And for the next ninety minutes, they made good on the promise forwarded by those opening minutes, tackling a range of material from their three albums, often at an accelerated pace.

Followers of Ali Farka Toure (and now his son Vieux) and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan will warm up quickly to Tinariwen, but what sets them apart is their wholesale appropriation of the electric guitar -- flashy, stylish Fenders and other marquee makes -- and the contrast this strikes against their traditional garb and Tamashek (and sometimes French) lyrics. The rhythms are circular and distinctly African (and driven by a single drum), but the guitars, strummed and picked with their fingers and no picks, give the music its true voice. Even the beautiful, often mesmerizing call-and-response vocals tend to blend in to the aural stew while electric, lightly distorted guitar lines lead out front.

"Iz okay?" asked the lead vocalist after nearly every song to resounding cheers. He doesn't speak English and took to addressing the crowd in French at other points in the evening, but I haven't a clue what he said. Based on the response, it seemed good. Midway through the concert, he also told us, "I am feeling happy tonight," and said that he liked San Francisco. Other than "Thank you," that's all the English we got all night.

But language is beside the point; it's the mood and the rhythms that rule, and Tinariwen can groove as well as any African band you've ever heard. It was somewhat frustrating being seated the whole time, especially with the band members dancing around on stage, so many fans took to dancing in the aisles and occasionally from their seats. Most everyone else settled with rocking back and forth. During the two-song encore, the entire place was on its feet, moving along particularly intently to closer "Mataraden Anexan," one of the band's catchiest numbers (see YouTube video above).

When the six musicians took a bow together and the house lights came on, it was hard not to feel we'd witnessed something special. Tinariwen is at the very least among the finest African groups in the world today -- if not at the very top. Next time they come to town (it'll probably be another year), don't miss your chance to share in the experience.

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