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Gig Review - Tinariwen at the Powerstation

Tinariwen at the Powerstation

Wednesday 29 May 2024 

Full feature by Gannon Platts-Mills 

Photography by Milad Asadi


Il faisait froid, mais Tinariwen nous a donné sa flamme

A myriad of fans populated the stepped entrance to the Powerstation on a biting, drizzly Wednesday evening. Anticipating and receptive faces, some dressed in Tuareg attire and others donning western garms, all keenly awaiting their company to what will prove to be a symbolic event of unity. Slipping through into the warm mingle of attendees, the relaxed hum signalled an evening of soothing rhythms for the soul. Proprietors of rhythm, hailing from the Tuareg region of the South Sahara, Grammy-Winning Tinariwen kicked off their world tour here in Auckland. Coming off the back of their new single “Azawad”, Tinariwen have continued to find themselves steadily amassing a worldwide cult following, no doubt a result of their endearing presence as much as their signature sound. 

Prefaced by a similarly charming group, Leao, led by the Tāmaki-born Samoan David Feauai-Afaese, introducing themselves and spreading welcomes to the audience in Samoan. A group with such individual magnetism, but collective harmony, the audience was enraptured from the first note. Which I noticed in the few brief moments in which I wasn’t admiring the singular simplicity of the Hawaiian slide guitar, or the vigorous rhythm of David’s nearly unfaltering right-hand on lead. The island sway took hold of the crowd, a breath of the Pacific, driven by the tastefully refined rhythm section of Navakatoa Tekela-Pule and Larsen Taylor. Toting the coolest bass I’ve ever laid eyes on, Navakatoa’s semi-hollow, violin-shaped instrument, and its lumping thump permitted the occasional break. Inducing a current, flowing and rippling across the crowd, seaweed in a mosh pit basin, coaxed into a body-rolling trance.

Leao’s camaraderie on stage, and bashful smiles to supporting members in the crowd, gave me the always satisfying notion that perhaps the artist enjoys performing their music, just as much as we enjoy listening to it. An uplifting act, culminating in a hand cramp for David midway through the final track and a sense of amused admiration from the crowd, as his relentless punk-esque strumming caught up with him.

After the crowd’s energy had simmered for long enough, a light show of desert yellow and sky blue lit the stage. Illuminating the six members as they emerged in full Tuareg dress, “Welcome to the Sahara” declared Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, inviting the audience to indulge in their reverberating rhythm. 

Tinariwens’ sound has often been labelled as “Desert Blues”, a term burdened by the notion of a sub-genre appropriated from American Blues. While traditional Blues have a strong influence on Tinariwens’ sound, with their crunchy, minor pentatonic riffs and steel-string twang. It cannot be said that the sonic impression that is left by Tinariwen’s live presence, is so directly influenced by anything other than their passion for Tuareg culture. In an interview with NZ Herald, Tinariwens’ Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni speaks to ‘assouf’, a Tamasheq word meaning ‘nostalgia’, which suggests that Tinariwens music is not intended to be defined by the sum of its influences, but rather the emotion it reveals.

A sentiment that grew increasingly obvious midway through the set. A somewhat reserved crowd watched as the boisterous and spirited vocalist Alhassane Ag Touhami abandoned his post and, after only a few cautionary drum beats and a cheeky glance at percussionist Said Ag Ayad, assumed a chiefly dominance upon the calabash. Driving out a metronomic rhythm, much to the crowd’s delight. Freeing limbs across the mosh pit, as smiles broached the faces of even the most stoic members of Tinariwen. A most endearing gesture, wearing their hearts clear on their sleeves for an audience halfway across the world, a perfect symbol of the strength in community. A function of society becoming increasingly rare in the secular Western mindset, limited to moments such as these. A moment in which I will admit, I danced like a maniac

Formed in the late seventies, the ever-adapting lineup of Tinariwen seeks not only to create a tapestry of culture and experience through their rich discography, but also to enchant listeners with a sense of vicarious immersion and nostalgia for the nomadic existence by way of the Sahara.

The friendly face of Alhassane Ag Touhami took on the role of crowd energy control, frequently starting sustained periods of clapping, particularly throughout their encore. While taking every opportunity during a guitar break to step forward and display a repertoire of hypnotic, flowing moves. His efforts did not go unrewarded by the crowd, who responded raucously with loud whistles and ‘chahoos’. 

In live music, there are certain techniques that can be used to create a palpable sense of authenticity that transports the listeners. Tinariwens gift is their layered vocals, the impact of their steady voices harmonising as the droning chords become merely sand grains across dunes. A single driving baritone voice, imbued with such reminiscence and yearning that you needn’t understand the lyrics to feel their intent. 

After a moving steel string ballad and searing crescendo of Tinariwens encore, the feeling of satiated relaxation again fell over the venue. As the final echoes of Tinariwen’s presence faded and fans filed out, we were stung by a biting cold on our skin, warmed by the transient and colourful people of Ténéré, The Desert Boys, Tinariwen.