Lush sounds from barren lands

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Everyone feels proprietary about Tinariwen. When the Touareg nomads played at the Barbican last Friday night, Robert Plant himself was there to introduce the evening. A few years ago, Tinariwen were a band you had to stumble across. I remember them at Womad in Reading in 2001, playing in a tiny tent late on a hot Friday night, before half the festival-goers had even turned up. The band were in robes and veils; all that could be seen of their faces were the eyes staring ahead, their bodies swaying almost imperceptibly in time with the deliberatively slow music. Intense, implacable, they made the starring acts around them seem like comedic novelties.

Their back story has the same hard romanticism. The band grew up during the Touareg rebellions against the Malian government in the 1970s; they met in refugee camps in the Libyan desert, and played their part in the resistance both militarily and musically. Their songs were smuggled out, copied from tape to tape. Even owning a copy would earn a prison sentence.

Since their first British appearance, Tinariwen’s star has risen steadily. They are hailed as the last gang in rock-and-roll, the saviours of the electric guitar. Critics love them for their blend of icy cool and rebel politics.

And here they were in a sold-out Barbican, with rock royalty gushing like teenage fanboys. A weight of expectation lay on this concert like yards of sand.

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, in resplendent robes and a horizontal Afro, stepped into a spotlight. “Tenere Dafeo Nikchan”, he sang slowly, picking out a skeletal melody on his guitar. “I am in the desert with a woodfire/keeping the night company/with its shooting stars . . . ”

Then the rest of the band trooped on stage, a percussionist, a bassist, a singer and four more guitarists: eight all told, all heavily veiled except Mina Walet Oumar, the sole woman, whose ululations provided an upper register to the guttural guitar riffs of the frontline. They started with “Cler Achel”, a song of the displacement and nostalgia and loss of the Touaregs after the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s. In concert, even more than on record, Tinariwen are a testament to the force of massed guitars. The simple lines of the desert blues, multiplied across four or five guitarists at a time, wove into complex, tangled patterns, still as tight and severe as ever. They were punctuated by handclaps and pounded djembe, but all the instruments worked in service of the rhythm.

The songs delineated a precise lyrical world. Tinariwen means, literally, desert spaces, and that is their territory. On “Arawan”, Ibrahim half rapped about finding only the remains of a camp, washed away by rain and mud. “Chatma”, with its guitar notes psychedelically bent and distorted, contained a call for the Touareg to fight at the gates of Kidal. Sporadic fighting is still going on, and though a formal arms amnesty and reintegration of the rebels was concluded last week, the Touareg are still separately engaged in low-intensity skirmishes with the Maghrebi incarnation of al-Qaeda. The choppy reggae beat of “Aldhechen Manin” revelled in the weariness of desert life. Eyadou Ag Leche, the bass player, hung fire tantalisingly before underpinning Ibrahim’s guitar with a solid block of low notes.

The concert ended with a driving “Matadjem Yinmixan”, a plea for solidarity among the fissiparous Touareg clans. Audience members climbed on stage to dance with the band, in styles that ranged from abandoned to embarrassed. The band shook hands with them courteously; they may be everyone’s property now, but they remain defiantly their own masters.

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