Friday, 2 March 2012

A Blast from the Desert

Tinariwen at home in the Sahara Desert
I just came back from a concert performed by Tinariwen, a band based in the Sahara Desert in northern Mali.

They are a group of Tourareg-Berber musicians and formed Tinariwen in 1979 in the refugee camps in Libya and then returned to Mali in the mid-1990s.

And last month they won a Grammy for Best New World Music.

Just before the concert began the audience heard how the band members live in the desert and it takes them at least two days to get to the airport by jeep and bus. For us urbanites this kind of commuting is so far removed from what we know that it made us appreciate their coming to Hong Kong even more.

Performing at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall
And to add to the complications, fighting between warring factions has broken out in northern Mali so two band members, founder and guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and singer-guitarist Elaga Al Hamid could not safely get out of the area.

Nevertheless, the band managed to round up two former members of the band to play for us at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

The six-member group including a female singer, came on stage wearing their silk-cotton robes complete with headdress. In the Concert Hall they were trying to recreate an intimate musical session in the desert under the stars.

Once they began to play, you couldn't help but clap, tap your toes or bob your head to the music. The beats were strong and the music lyrical. Many of the songs were about their war-torn experiences and their yearning for freedom.

After every song, one of the singer-guitarists would say, "Ca va? Is OK?"

Yes! It was more than OK -- it was fantastic. And every time he asked us, we had to laugh.

The female singer had very strong vocals and was a wonderful dancer who swayed beautifully with the music. She attempted to say "thank you" in Cantonese and we appreciated the effort.

In the end the 90-minute show was extended to almost 120 and afterwards as we were walking out, we practically rubbed shoulders with some of the band members who came out to sign autographs. We thanked them and told them the music was fantastic in French. One of my friends wanted to swoon.

Two band members waiting to sign autographs for fans
All the CDs were sold out already so people snapped up records -- yes vinyl folks -- at HK$200 a piece. Then people lined up to get them autographed by Tinariwen and take pictures of them.

What a night. I am just blown away by the great lengths they go to to travel around -- and they have played in all kinds of cities and music festivals. And yet they are very much at home in the desert, drinking tea made from a small campfire and living relatively simple lives.

From their music they are spreading awareness of their people's plight and their call for freedom.

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