In concert: Tinariwen
By Aaron Leitko
You don't have to play fast to be a guitar hero. The Malian septet Tinariwen proved that slow and steady has its own virtuosity Friday night at the 9:30 Club.
The band performed an hour and a half of languid, hypnotic, nod-inducing music that unfolded so gradually, with such a finely-tuned regard for pacing, that guitarist and vocalist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib's solos seemed to be taking place on a geological timescale. He knew when to play a note, when not to play a note, and when to milk a note for all it could yield.
Distance is Tinariwen's greatest commodity - both the spaces they stick between the notes and the real geographic isolation that allowed the group develop its distinctive style.
Founded by Alhabib during the early '80s, Tinariwen is made up of Tuareg - Berber nomads from the Northern region of Mali who fought a decades-long separatist struggle against the post-colonial government. The musicians, Alhabib included, spent years in exile, in military training camps and at war. They also, evidently, spent a lot of woodshedding to bootleg Hendrix and Led Zeppelin cassettes.
Alhabib's guitar style may be sparse, but it has a measure of dino-rock bravado. He worries his notes and tosses off light-speed trills. The group's last two records - "Amam Imam" (2007) and "Imidiwan" (2009) were expertly produced affairs meant to show off an extended family of musicians, many of whom took a turn playing leads. But the touring lineup of Tinariwen is more stripped down, one where Alhabib does most of the soloing. As a result, it's slightly looser, heavier and groovier - a perfect blend of James Brown and Crazy Horse.
It takes a few minutes to get going, though. Tinariwen's music is built around call and response rather than harmonic motion. Unlike the blues, there's no eight- or 16-bar turn-around to divide up the phrasing. Instead, whispered vocals are answered with chanted melodies which then give way to face-scrunching guitar solos. Each song had to be gradually worked into existence, with Alhabib introducing a riff, improvising around it, then allowing the rhythm section to build up steam behind him. But that moment of shreddy abandon always arrived. Tinariwen does not hurry, but it always arrives on time.
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