Since Tinariwen were last seen in London a lot has happened. In February they won a Grammy award for best world music album, although that album, Tassili, was far from their best; an acoustic dead-end, it roped in celebrity guests in an attempt to widen their appeal that merely diluted it. More serious is the political situation in Mali, where they have been figureheads for the Touareg struggle against the state. In January, a coup ballooned into the secession of the northern part of the country, but this separatist movement was quickly hijacked by Islamists affiliated with al-Qaeda. Now, in their part of the Sahara, music is banned; coming on tour, which used to involve a complicated trip via Timbuktu and Bamako, now entails an even more complicated trip via southern Algeria. Ibrahim Al Aghabib, Tinariwen’s difficult but commanding front man, has stayed home in the desert.
This first appearance in London (other dates follow) came at the top of the bill of Songlines magazine’s Awards for World Music: they had won Best Group. The award for Best Newcomer went to their compatriot (de jure if no longer de facto) Fatoumata Diawara. If not yet a natural headliner, she is a reliably great support act: instantly memorable songs, irresistibly charming, accompanied just by an acoustic guitar. Her noisy Parisian band muffled the impact a bit, forcing her to shout where she needed to sing gently. Introducing “Kèlè”, she alluded obliquely to the situation in Mali, blurring it into a general call for peace across Africa.
Best Artist was Anoushka Shankar, who played a selection from her recent album combining Indian classical music with flamenco. For the most part, the mixture was convincing; looser and more improvisatory than when she toured with the same material last year. Ashwani Shankar (no relation) played the shennai, a flute that sounded uncannily like a flamenco singer; Sandra Carrasco, an actual flamenco singer, sang a 13th-century Farsi king’s song of devotion in Spanish translation. Shankar herself worked the sitar hard, left arm flying up and down the long fretboard as if semaphoring. A duet with Spanish guitarist El Melón on “Boy Meets Girl” failed to spark, and the absence of her usual classical interludes was a pity, but the closing “Jog” whipped up immense punkish energy through tightly compressed solos on percussion, tanpura and finally sitar.
Tinariwen, when they appeared, were clustered into a tight circle in the middle of the vast stage, looking beleaguered. Their dress code of full robes and veiled faces was back in force, after recent years in which they had become decidedly casual, with foreheads and chins occasionally creeping into view. Touareg Kremlinologists would have noted the band slimmed down to six (from a peak of nine or 10), the sharp ululations of the women singers notably absent.
Al Aghabib’s absence was felt: he ornaments his electric guitar playing with constant flourishes and curlicues, each abruptly cut off in a way that gives Tinariwen their sense of rumbling menace. In his absence, Egadou Ag Leche, the bass player, upped his attack, dry and heavy on “Amidinin” and “Adunya”. By the end of the set, though, the band had their groove back. “Nazagh Ejbal” made a virtue of width and space; Ag Leche played a succession of wide, stepping solos on “Sastan Nakham” that compelled applause, and by the closing “AchryIbone” Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni’s guitar was as crunching and gritty as ever. Speaking before the concert, Ag Leche had dismissed the ban on music: “Chaque soir, on chante.” The Islamists – “les barbus” – had made a big mistake, he said. Watching Tinariwen back on form felt like a confirmation.
Tinariwen play at the Union Chapel, London, on November 27 and 29, www.tinariwen.com