Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mali Men’s Uplifting Blues

My favorite rockin’ nomads from North Africa made their second visit in two years to The Paradise in Boston last month and, once again, they presented an exotic blend of riff heavy, blues-based, trance rock with an undercurrent of tribal rhythms.

Despite the rampant riffology, overall the music is an upbeat, joyous, trance-like tapestry of melody, rhythm, singing and chanting. 

While many of the songs are indistinguishable to all but the most knowing of the group’s fans (I own six of their CDs yet have a hard time differentiating specific tunes on the fly), there is a definite sense of individual songs. It’s far from some endlessly meandering ebb and flow a la some Grateful Dead shows. The band certainly does jam, but most-often in distinct 2- to 6-minute arrangements that, for the most part, adhere to our Western sense of song structures (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.). 

There was no Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the group’s most recognized public face and legendary founder, this time around. He may be phasing out of his role after 30-plus years leading the band. In last year’s Paradise show, he took the star turn and made little more than cameo appearances during the group’s lengthy set. The blue-robed Alhassane Ag Touhami (I think) took the lead role for most of that show and now he appears to have assumed the role of senior band leader, perhaps now, in turn, to yield the stage in increments to the next generation of newcomers. 

One new face – proverbially speaking, given what little you can see of them – this time was a tall dude, dressed in white with black head garb. He sang and clapped in the background for most of the nearly two-hour set, but on a handful of tunes he took the center mic to sing and play more ferocious, and more Western-sounding, electric guitar. He was spurred on by his seasoned bandmates, particularly the funky bassist who wouldn’t have been out of place grooving along to some Motown hits. The tall dude was also the only band member to sport a shiny new Gibson Les Paul on one tune – otherwise there’s a lot of sharing of guitars among the three six-string slingers.

The band’s authentic desert nomad apparel adds to the exotic flavor of things, but it also makes for an interesting juxtaposition considering the desert-meets-the-delta vibe of the music. I couldn’t help being struck by a thought spawned by the growing appeal of this North African music among American audiences and the anonymity of with its main proponents. If the tribe has as deep a well of talented musicians as it seems, they could outfit several touring groups to be traveling different parts of the North America and Europe through out the year (or at least in the desert off season). Kind of a musical Blue Man group from the Dark Continent. (I suggest that only partially in jest, and certainly with all due respect.) I hope Tinariwen come back for another annual visit next fall.

In the meantime, I’ll be on the lookout for other purveyors of these engagingly semi-exotic sounds from Timbuktu and beyond.

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