Belfast Festival: Tinariwen

Stuart Bailie on the Saharan blues band headed for the Belfast Festival

Tinariwan play trance-like Sahara blues – informed by the severe experience of a region battered by politics, prejudice and tumult. At the same time they deliver some astounding music, touched by Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, but underpinned by the desert groove, unhurried and undulating.

If you ever wondered where the likes of John Lee Hooker got their coiling riffs from, then the journey from Mississippi to Mali is expertly traced on Tinariwen's fourth album, Imidiwan: Companions.

They’re a rambling composite of figures, who seem to shift with each record and the needs of the day. There are splinter acts, poets, random retirements, mystery figures and a Bez character who simply likes to dance. But that's never done the Buena Vista Social Club or the Wu Tang Clan any harm: if anything it adds gravitas and durability to this colourful African ensemble .

Further back, there’s the story of a nomadic community called the Touaregs, who were victims of an apparently unjust conflict. This experience sent Ibrahim Ag Alhabib on a decades-long journey of war, upheaval and rock and roll. Just as the poor Jamaicans of Trenchtown found their own musical voice – the ‘sufferah’ tradition – so Tinariwen sing the blues from the depth of their heart. There’s no need for drama or grandstanding, the grievances are plainly there in the tunes.

Their musical evolution began with basic instruments made from tin cans and many years later, it flourished at Glastonbury 2009, where they played two shows on two stages. By then, fans included Robert Plant, Bono and Thom Yorke.

Even if only half the things you read about them are true, they represent the vindication of music in the face of bullets and appalling circumstance. At a time when alternative music is so vapid and thin, then the appeal of Tinariwen is all the more important.

Western music has been sporadically interested in the music of North and West Africa. The Rolling Stones worked with the master musicians of Jajouka while Ry Cooder made a legendary connection with Ali Farka Touré on the album Talking Timbuktu. The Clash made an prophetic commentary about the friction between the cultures on ‘Rock The Casbah’ and the circle was completed when the Algerian artist Rachid Taha recorded a bristling version of the song.

But the most passionate link of all seems to be Robert Plant. Back in the days of Led Zeppelin, he fetched up ‘Kashmir’, the first of a series of experiments in this area. These days, he’s a fluent advocate and he was blown away by his involvement with Festival In The Desert, a music venture based on a Touareg tradition.

Afterwards, he told Rolling Stone that 'it's one of the few honest things I have been part of in a long, long time. It's amazing to play out in the sand. There are no doors, no gates and no money. It reminded me of why I sang in the first place. It's not commercialized.'

Check out YouTube for a scratchy but sublime version of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, featuring Plant and Tinariwen pinballing across continents. And there’s no shortage of positive quotes from Justin Adams, another musical explorer, who involved Plant in this wonderful fusion and also produced Tinariwen’s music at a critical time in the story.

All of this should guarantee a historic visit to Belfast. It’s the kind of event that only an established festival can deliver, a true bonus for the city, a chance to experience mystery, magic, healing and amazing tunes.

Tinariwen play Mandela Hall, Belfast on October 16 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's. For more information check out the festival website at or telephone 028 9097 1197