by carl wilson

Tinariwen @ the Mod Club and Ethnic Opacity

The Mod Club was packed. As far as I could tell there wasn't a big turnout of Toronto Tuaregs or Malians (that'd probably work better in Montreal), unless they were in the rows up close to the front across the sea of music journalists, "world music" fanciers, industry types drawn by Robert Plant's recommendation (ah, friends, you think that music bizzers just don't care about music, but they care very much what Classic Rock still has to tell them) and others who had come out to see Tinariwen, the international band-du-jour, this evening. As fellow crit-type Helen Spitzer put it, "So this is the crowd you get when Matt Galloway describes you as 'the Saharan Rolling Stones.' " But I don't mean this cynically: The band in large measure deserves the hype, and while it's not the blues-rock-exotica jam-fest that such a descriptor suggests (indeed, as one drunken guy nearby me slurred to his companions, "It sounds like country music! Nashville country music!" - and he was right, in as much as a bunch of songs in 15/8 rhythm can), the way that the electric and acoustic guitar can be treated like a smack fresh idea by this group of ex-expats who came together in a Libyan refugee/guerrilla camp in the 1980s does recall a moment when rock had a credible claim to liberatory power (as Helen's partner Michael Barclay says in his fine Eye profile of the group).

Lacking a vocabulary in Tuareg musical traditions or even much of a North African fluency aside from rudimentary Ali Farka Toure, most of us who've written about Tinariwen this year (do a quick search and you'll find tons: they're having a Moment) are short on interpretive strategies. There's the amazing backstory of their role as the voice of Tuareg rebellion, and then there are the voluptuous waves of the sound, the lightness of the touch: yes, there are guitar solos with some bluesy licks, but they're almost like Philip Glass rounds of hypnotic organ trills, fluttery birdcalls nothing like a Keef or Santana or Page phallic flange. They do in a reverse-retro way recall, for a western listener, some African-influenced guitar rock such as Television or Talking Heads, especially when rhythm-chord bursts overtake the primary backbeat of drum-and-drone. But even at their most assertive they seem gentle, as if their fingers hit the guitars more reverently than their western counterparts do. And then there are the vocals, which (aside from one apparently French-hip-hop-influenced, talk-sing number) remind me of African Arabic song, beautifully skewed to the hook-repeating guitar parts, hitting on the 3 and the 9 of the pattern and always communicative, conversational, until they descend to the final, sighing burnt-down conclusion of most every song.

We were missing the female component of the band tonight, a fundamental part of the call-and-response space of the music, reportedly because the main woman in the band recently had a baby (and another member, Barclay told me, is fighting malaria), and that made the group, despite its dramatic robe-and-turban-wrapped costume, seem a bit more mundane and boundaried than they do on record. But mainly it was the opacity of the content that nagged at me: Yes, music is a "universal language" in the sense that I joyfully danced and clapped and hummed along to these hypnotic tunes, but it is not, because I knew the lyrical and structural contents of the songs had much more challenging things to say, of which I knew nothing. The band clearly couldn't tell us much (the stage banter consisted, very charmingly, after they'd just kicked large quantities of musical ass, of asking, "It's okay?" and being greeted by ever-building screams of pleasure), but I wondered about the tourism we were indulging by listening to this band whose whole identity and mystique is wrapped up in the role they've played in their people's liberation struggle and walking away saying, "What a freaky ecstatic groove that was." (The country-music guy was also very excited by the purple lightshow that played out on the backdrop for a song or two, saying, "That's so psychedelic! They're kind of psychedelic, aren't they?" When of course the whole category of "psychedelic" was partly constructed by borrowings from Indian and Arabic and African rhythms - the signified becomes the signifier becomes the signified.)

But what would I ask? That Tinariwen provide surtitles? Pamphlets on Tuareg ethnic struggles mandatorily taken at the door? Perhaps it's more than enough that the next time a story about the Tuareg issue shows up in the papers, a Tinariwen fan will be twice as likely to read it, and if she's a newspaper editor be twice as likely to give it good play? In this way, beautiful music is perhaps greater propaganda than agit-prop: "I have good vibes for that oppressed people, man." But as I clapped on the 1 and the 4 and the 7 and the 10 and the 13 (or elsewhere at my best on the 2, 5, 8, 11, syncopating some), I longed to be thinking coherently about guns and camels and millet along with math and guitars. For that I probably needed less for Tinariwen to be coming to me and more to go to the Festival au Desert in Timbuktu, which I learned about in a pamphlet from the merch table. Or more realistically, to find ways to think of Timbuktu as a place and not a nursery rhyme. Maybe the uncertainty is the point.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, November 21 at 1:38 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)

 

COMMENTS

As someone who worked on this concert for Small World, it's truly a pleasure to see it inspire this sort of dialogue. Make no mistake, we have plenty of nights where there are 30 people on hand, in far better weather, to see music of similar or equal artistic quality. Nights like Tinariwen make it all worthwhile.

Indeed, this wasn't a political rally. It was a concert. And the fact that so many people came out to witness it surely must have had something to do with the story behind this incredible band -- and the way that story was told to the people of Toronto in advance of the show. At that point, people knew they were going to see and hear something amazing, and it was about the music. And as Carl points out in the last paragraph of his essay, the awareness generated going forward is what matters most in the context of politics and social justice.

I had the pleasure of spending time with Tinariwen and their crew before and after the show. Having been immersed in the story of the band for two months, I admit to having expected an intimidating, fearsome vibe. And while their never-ending games of poker for Marlboro cigarettes certainly didn't seem to be for the faint of heart, what touched me most as I dusted off my rusty French was how playful and gentle they are. While the message of struggle and pride in carrying the message of the Touareg is certainly fundamental to Tinariwen's music, so too is the joy they feel in being free enough to make and share their music. And it doesn't hurt to have come from where they do when you're surviving a grind of 170 concerts in a year.

White guilt and world music will always go hand in hand. Upon witnessing such a spectacle it's natural for any enlightened Caucasian with a knowledge of human history to feel a tinge of cultural appropriation. But I can tell you categorically that for Tinariwen, the joy of having profoundly touched and inspired so many people on the tour's first night in Canada was just as moving for them.

Thanks to David, Carl and everyone else who may be reading this and who may have played a part in making Tinariwen Live in Toronto the singularly inspiring night that it was.

Posted by Sebastian on December 5, 2007 11:23 AM

 

 

"why so many industry sorts were at this particular show rather than at a lot of other equally high-quality international artists' performances in Toronto"

One of the most gratifying things for me about the makeup of the show was the industry buzz factor. I give a lot of credit to Tinariwen's label in Canada, Outside, which is also a distributor. They've been working the Tinariwen album steadily since it came out in March, trying to give it the same priority as any of their other (mostly rock) artists.

Absolutely the fact that it's easy rolling music has made a difference, but the same could be said of Amadou and Mariam's show at Harbourfront last year. Although the A and M album sold 500K in France (as opposed to Tinariwen's 80K worldwide for this album so far)and was big in Quebec, it's been my experience that their label, Nonesuch, seems happy not to make further inroads into different markets in Canada, and didn't seek the kind of industry buzz that was hard-won by Outside.

At the other end of the spectrum, promoters Small World Music have been attracting more public and industry attention for their efforts of putting on world music events on a year-round basis - taking it outside of the Harbourfront summer-centric programming niche.

So I think there was a combination of good ol' fashioned record company promo behind this, a promoter who's gaining ground in the Toronto musicscape, fans from Tinariwen's previous Toronto appearance in 2005 (it never hurts a band to be road warriors), CBC's big-time hype, and maybe, just maybe, some changing attitudes and/or business conditions that made this show sell out a non-world music venue with a non-world music crowd on a cold, rainy Tuesday in November.

You called it, Carl, they're having a "moment" and I think it's a wonderful thing.

Posted by dacks on November 30, 2007 10:51 AM

 

 

You ask good questions, Andre, particularly your opening one about the relevance of my description of the makeup of the crowd. It wasn't about authenticity, I don't think. It was more a question of why so many industry sorts were at this particular show rather than at a lot of other equally high-quality international artists' performances in Toronto, eg often at Harbourfront in the summer. It was just the idea that Tinariwen is unusually easy to listen to as a version of or tribute to the kind of music A&R; guys tend to like best - that there seems to be less distance to grapple with. And this seemed relevant because in some ways the hiddenness of the distance made me feel more distant, more like I would be prone to misunderstanding, rather than at least experiencing my own not-understanding as a thing in itself.

However, I was overly disdainful in presenting that frame, and I'm suitably embarrassed to have that pointed out.

I'd forgotten the "welcome to the desert" line - I think I only heard it once, at the beginning, and it slipped my mind... I sheepishly confess I had to resist the temptation to add, "of the real" - although in this context it takes on quite another meaning, hm?

Also: I wouldn't say I was thinking of myself as wanting to "help" Tinariwen or in fact as pointing only to the political - the examples I gave might have come off that way, but I didn't mean, "yes, yes, nice music, but what can I do about the struggle?" What I failed to get across was that my questions more were cultural - feeling that getting at least a vague sense of subject matter would help me understand the actual musical information, of possible emotions or imagery through which I might interpret. Help me hear a guitar lick differently. I'm not sure I was looking for message, more for context.

Of course this is an insecure response on my part, in a sense - I recognize my own linguistic-crutch issues. I like it when instrumental pieces have suggestive titles, for instance - not that I listen to everything as program music, but it helps quiet and focus my constantly word-babbling mind, a starting point. However, of course, this isn't something the musicians owe me on any level, and that there are good musical arguments, in fact, for avoiding. As I tried to suggest in the post, the fact that any "solutions" seem worse than the "problem" is a hint that the problem is me.

I was questioning the tendency to just subsume all upbeat music from around the world into a not-so-differentiated "party groove" category. No doubt most of those bands do in fact want to create a party groove. But whenever I do understand the language - which doesn't mean there can't still be big cultural differences - you get some sense of how much more there is to it.

It is a good question whether there is anything more to me wanting that sense than some sort of ego gratification, and whether knowing a little is better than knowing nothing. I'm not trying to stage an argument, more to dig into the feelings such dynamics stir up for me as a listener. Thanks for your help in thinking further through them. A subject I'll no doubt come back to.

Posted by zoilus on November 29, 2007 9:51 PM

 

 

the problem for me, carl, is that you start off with some disdainful comments about the music journalist/industry types that filled the mod club. you start off, in other words, with disdain for yourself. (i was at the concert, near the front of the stage, and there were industry people there, myself included, but i didn't think them illegitimate in their celebration of the music.)

instead of grapplling first with the music, you question your right to be there, your right to that music. (if the room had been filled with malians, what would you have felt about your right to be there? what would you have felt about the music? would it have been a deeper or more real experience for you? and what would that mean, exactly?)

the question of the political significance of the art, as you write about it, implies a universality of the political content of the art. that is, you seem to feel that the political content of the music should be available to you and that you would, could you "hear" it, be acting on that political content.

there are a couple of problems with that, i think.

first, not all political content should be acted on by those who aren't part of the implicated culture. to use an exaggeration: if george bush understood tinariwen's message, his intervention might not be best for the imashaghen. to understand the message is not to understand the context of the message. (i know this is obvious, carl, but something in your post suggests, to me anyway, that you've leapt over this.)

the political content of a work of art comes from a specific place. as you are not from that place, what is the degree of involvement that you owe to that political content/struggle? your article suggests that you think you should be involved with the struggle in some way, even though it isnt yours, and you feel somewhat guilty about your non-involvement. isn't it possible that your involvement might be worse than your non-involvement?

second: why do you assume that the musicians of tinariwen (and the bassist is one of the best i've seen since i saw jaco pastorius play with weather report) are after your political committment? despite the lyrics, despite the political context in which the music was created, is it not possible that the joy of being musicians is hugely important for these men? that is, isn't it possible that they themselves think of their art, first, their politics second? (i'm not saying that's the case, but i wonder how you know it's not.) while you were in that crowded room of people listening to tinariwen, is it possible that the pleasure you took in the music was the chief pleasure on offer, that they do not expect or even want/require your intervention? (knowing when to lay off is an important part of a political sensibility, yeah?)

i also wonder about your notion that it may, perhaps, be good enough that tinariwen fans will be sensitized to the situation of the tuareg through their love of the music, that this sensitization (a being "twice as likely" to read about the tuareg) may be the best we can hope for. this does rather turn tinariwen into advertisers of their cause. and, to say this, you have to believe that ANY political result is more significant than a purely aesthetic one. but is that true, i wonder? isn't it possible that the pleasure you took in being part of tinariwen's concert (sharing a pure joy in rhythm with men from another culture) is more significant/important than any political sensitization? that this joy is, itself, the highest degree of political accomplishment?

i realize there is a naivete to all this, a naivete on my part, perhaps. aside from saying "is okay?" from time to time, the men of the group also said, five or six times during the hour and a half, "welcome to the desert". this is something that was said, when they were first in toronto, by the group's chief songwriter and leader ibrahim ag alhabib. (he wasn't there at the mod club. worse than that, and unforgivably: there would have been little space on the mod club's stage had he and the two female singers been there.) "welcome to the desert" is obviously a way of creating links between themselves and the audience. perhaps the creation of those links was/is political to the musicians, or perhaps it's meant as an invitation to dance. hard to say. but your article, in pointing only to the political, turns tinariwen into minor politicians instead of major musicians. (and, playing without their leader and chief guitar player, ibrahim, they more than proved they are one of the best rhythm sections in the world, dynamic as hell.)

still a great article, but you should step back from the politics a little, if only to decide where the heart of your own political struggle lies. does it include the tuareg? and is this a one way street, or do the tuareg owe you their help too? that is, are you equals, in this political relationship, or is there a whiff of the patronizing to all this?

sorry if this isn't coherent, carl. it's off the top of my head.

andre

Posted by andre alexis on November 28, 2007 8:56 PM

 

 

Obviously I wasn't saying that the category-transcending aspects of the music aren't primary, and I'm sure that's what the band intends. I suppose I've enjoyed it most when bands who are performing in front of audiences they know don't speak the language will talk a bit in-between tunes (not every tune but now and then) about what the previous or upcoming song is about. Sure, it's not their job to educate the audience, nor is it the audience's job necessarily to be educated. I'm just talking personally - I will usually read up about artists before I see them, learn something about their contexts, etc., but it's seldom possible to learn their repertoire so deeply that I can identify the songs as they come up. I don't think the members of Tinariwen speak enough English to do much of that (though hearing it in French would probably have been useful to much of the audience, since this is Canada), and I'm not remotely bothered that they didn't. It's just a reflection on what I find more transporting. But then again I'm not even bothered by North American musicians talking politics etc at concerts, even when their statements aren't superprofound, so long as they observe normal conditions of conversational etiquette. (Eg don't prattle on and on boringly.) But I know plenty of people can't stand even a hint of that. Different strokes etc.

Posted by zoilus on November 25, 2007 8:31 PM

 

 

Incredible concert! I think people connect with the music on all different levels and that's OK and completely personal. Although I couldn't understand every word, I certainly could feel the darkness of certain tunes. I totally disagree that it is Tinariwen's responsibility to educate the crowd - the music speaks for itself. People are more than able to research the music, Tuareg culture, the band /lyrics on their own. It is each one of our responsibilities to do this for ourselves if we so desire. The band already provides more info than most on their website. Personally, I hate proselytizing at concerts and even find the pre-band intro irritating. I just want the music to transport me to another zone and I do the more cerebral stuff, like researching the band or the music, either before or after the show.

Posted by Zim on November 23, 2007 2:42 PM

 

 

Meanwhile, aren't folks around the world being bombarded with English.

At the Tinariwen show in DC there were some Malians there. Some of them jumped on the stage and spoke to to the crowd (in French I believe).

As someone who has been listening to African music (in various African languages and French) and various Latin styles (in Spanish) I do feel I am losing out a bit due to my inability to understand the languages, but as one commenter stated above, sometimes it's hard to even decipher sung English. Plus the musical angle is more important to me than the poetry/lyrical angle.

Posted by curm on November 23, 2007 1:06 PM

 

 

To temper what I wrote earlier -- and state the obvious -- there is a unique joy in discovering new sounds and colours, which may be dulled by expertise or familiarity (romanticism rears its head again). Misunderstandings can be fruitful and creative, even within one's own culture. Also, if I had to research the context and learn the correct dance steps before every show, I'd probably stay home a whole lot more!

Posted by michelangelo on November 22, 2007 1:25 PM

 

 

It’s unfashionable these days to focus on the commonalities that make a Tinariwen show enjoyable and meaningful for the audience and band alike. Sure, we won’t understand the Tamashek lyrics and can never fully ‘get to’ the culture behind it. But the same could be said of Tinariwen’s adoption of Led Zep and Kenny Rogers as influences – except in their case, the usual line of reasoning is that they’ve “made this music their own”, making the best of the pop culture the West foists upon them. I’m sure they’re not sweating the Runic and Celtic influences in Led Zep which, at the time they first heard them, were completely outside their orbit. It sure sounds like they’re finding some kind of power chord communion with American rawk.

I think it’s important to focus on points of intersection as much as points of difference. I find the unspoken conclusion of most critics who focus on difference is that, in the end, if we can’t fully get to it, we should ultimately leave it alone. That’s unacceptable to me. While the Touareg may seem remote, the same cannot be said of the considerable West and East African populations in Toronto. Is their music remote? They may be singing in another language and coming from different cultures – but they’re your neighbours, and they’re looking for gigs. As indie musicians, as Torontonians, as local music writers, as exploratory listeners, can we get to that? And if we can’t get to that, what does that mean for music in Toronto, and life in Toronto in general? Michaelangelo is right, most people don’t have breadth and depth, and it’s wrong to pass off a little knowledge as a lotbut what’s the consequence of not even trying to meet the local challenges of breadth? If you don’t know it all, is it worthless to know a little? The caveat of course is trying to pass off a little knowledge as a lot.

Tinariwen and most world music artists know the deal with 'world music'. They know what to expect from the circuit, venues, audiences and overall reaction to what they're doing. They know that their subject matter is going to be largely lost on these audiences. They know they’re going to be objectified on some level. And yet Tinariwen have slogged away at this circuit for 6 years. They were the ones to decide to pump up the rock elements on this disc. If it wasn't worth it for them, they wouldn't be doing it. There are options, like staying home and playing better paying gigs for cigarette smugglers, as one of their ex members has done. But to at least to some extent it *is* about engaging audiences around the world with good grooves, and to enjoy their show on that level.

Posted by dacks on November 22, 2007 11:06 AM

 

 

Being mostly (but not always) a music listener who likes the sound of singing more than the words being sung, my preferences run in the following order: unintelligible singing, patently non-sensical signing and singing in a language I don't understand. I've listened to the Tinariwen album several times without concerning myself with what is being said. It's a treat sometimes to hear the human voice soley as an instrument, unencumbered by a concern for literal meaning. I can't imagine listening to Puffy Ami Yumi in any language other the Japanese, for instance. I shudder to think what those girls are actually saying, although I recognize the same wouldn't be true of Tinariwen. Anyway, surely no one is suggesting we need surtitles at club shows. Ever.

Posted by vfw on November 22, 2007 8:37 AM

 

 

I wasn't suggesting that you were saying so, Carl. My comment is motivated, however, by my perception of more general trends, of which opera surtitling is exemplary, that do.

Posted by Somewhere There on November 21, 2007 12:04 PM

 

 

Of course, Scott, I'm not saying that there's not a lot of value in listening to music in languages one doesn't speak, or that music needs to be "about" anything in particular. But in Tinariwen's case the reportedly political content of the music and its sonic good-timeyness made me more than usually aware of that gap. If I hadn't read about the background it wouldn't have occurred to me that this was music in any way about conflict.

Posted by zoilus on November 21, 2007 11:36 AM

 

 

Funny, there's been quite a bit of talk lately in "world music industry" circles about the pros and cons of translating (into English). Some are behind the idea of surtitles at concerts, which I think would be weird in the extreme -- not to mention a greater logistical challenge than with opera. There's also quite a debate about services like yabla. com, a sort of multi-lingual "pop up video" video translation service -- world music is one of the areas they're targeting. Some seem to feel that while it may increase understanding of the lyrics, it will not necc. increase either cultural or musical understanding. Personally, I'd always rather know what the lyrics mean, and often that's possible, even if it means spending a lot of time squinting at liner notes. Of course sometimes it's disappointing, or even distressing -- I mean, as beautiful as the songs on Caetano Veloso's last recording are, (for example), it is difficult not to feel anxious about his preoccupation with young girls...Anyway, I think there is a sense that we are all tourists in musical cultures that are not our own -- that goes in every direction. But if you look at it like literal travel and tourism, maybe some of the same ideas apply. You try and understand what you can of the culture. You try not to be obnoxious. And you accept that you'll never have the kind of understanding that someone of that culture will have of the same, shared experience -- but isn't that part of what makes it interesting?

Posted by Li on November 21, 2007 11:33 AM

 

 

Perhaps the world music industry will go the route of the opera industry, where an increasingly wealthy and decreasingly educated audience has demanded surtitles of non-English works so that optimal 'meaning' is in exchange for the top-dollar tickets it has bought. Maybe there's nothing wrong with that in either case, though, regarding Tinawaren, I predict an investment in an authenticating myth that assumes their lyrics are more 'real' and less fantastic than, say, the libretto to La Bohème.

Regardless, what I find striking (and a little alarming) about these examples is the way they illustrate growing suspicion of the value of musical ideas alone for which knowledge of even trite or banal lyrics (esp. opera) is a superficial remedy. The meanings of musical ideas are, by their nature, more opaque (less easily defined) than the meanings of lyrics, and I guess for that reason tend to be trumped by them. Maybe subtler, indescribable meanings were available to you, Carl, that simply wouldn't have been if you understood Tamashek.

Posted by Somewhere There on November 21, 2007 11:00 AM

 

 

great post. these are thoughts i've often had, with "world" music. it's v frustrating when you start to wonder what you'd have be different. ("i'd rather be omniscient," i always end up thinking.) Shows like this - and Youssou N'Dour/Etoile de Dakar's Mtl show this weekend - make me feel a little sad that i don't have any friends who are itching to go (nor do I have the free time to take advantage), so i'll just end up staying home. I've not heard this band but I know some other Tuareg stuff, and it's magic.

in rather-less-opaque and certainly-whitebread news, have you heard the Vampire Weekend CD-R? I had totally ignored it, despite the catchiness of "Oxford Comma", assuming them yet another one-hit blog-wonder. But lo and behold the album's fucking great. Might grate slightly on your twee bone but the looseness, fun and courage of the musical choices (esp with the strings, synths) make it really, really special. And it's not a change of subject because of their sporadically afrobeat (ok, "Graceland"-tinged) flourishes.

Posted by sean on November 21, 2007 9:09 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson