Tinariwen with Dengue Fever at Massey Hall

The idea of protest music is as old as music itself. From war drumming to symphonies written to piss off the bourgeoisies to punk screaming to incite revolts against fascist governments. Music at it’s most primal works in a way that speaks to you in ways words and images can’t and is the reason why despite the changing landscape of music consumption remains so popular and always will. Authenticity is hard to define and often has conflicting meanings, but when a listener hears something they perceive as authentic it is impossible to deny it. 

Opening the night was the psychedelic Cambodian pop group Dengue Fever that was formed in Los Angeles. The band seemed to pull from plenty of western influences most notably the B-52’s with their off the wall pop arrangements but also mixing in Afro Funk styling’s. Lead singer Chhom Nimol sung almost entirely in Khmar, the language of her home country of Cambodia, in an almost meditative way. The show, which occurred on April 12th was a few days in advance of the Cambodian New Year (April 14th) and Nimol dedicated Hold My Hips to her people back home. Bass player Senon Williams seemed to be having the time of his life. Williams towered over the rest of the band and instead of having his own microphone would just share who’s ever he was closest to at the time as he played bass lines so heavy you wondered if every string was a E string. Towards the end of the set, Nimol and guitarist Zac Holtzman sang a duet on a song mostly in English about trying to call your lover. The show was heavy at times and very dancey at others showing a wide range of styles and influences, while quite possibly showing for the first time the many interesting styles of Khmar music to a crowd eager to see world tunes. Williams ended the set letting us know how much of a treat we were in letting us know that the guys from Tinariwen played very soulful music but also were very soulful people.

When the large group of men came on stage a simple “Hello, good afternoon” was uttered in English by Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni who played the acoustic guitar and was one of the main singers of the night. The band featured as many as seven members throughout the night barely spoke any English, didn’t perform much banter but still put on one of the most captivating shows I’ve ever seen.

In recent years I’ve been discovering that I love North African influenced music and have seen several shows that really opened my eyes to non-Americanized art. From acts like Songhoy Blues, a Mali blues dance/punk band that exudes energy like their lives depend on it to Bombino, a Taureg guitarist from Niger that is the same ethnicity as the members of Tinariwen to Omar Souleyman, a Syrian Dabke performer whose simple lyrics is the perfect dance music accompaniment. Tinariwen is a group of Taureg musicians from Mali that have roots all across the Sahara, spending time in Libya, Algeria, Chad and Niger that actually have fought as rebels. Reading the history of the band can be conflicting to a westerner that is a pacifist, especially knowing they were originally trained under dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi back in the 1980’s but times were different and trying to push blame doesn’t help understand their persecution. 

The band was dressed in full traditional Taureg garb including long tunic tops and all but one band member wearing tagelmust, a type of turban that also covers most of the face as well only showing the eyes meant to ward of evil spirits and more practically to keep sand out of your mouth and nose. Listening to their music you can close your eyes and imagine being in Marrakesh or Cairo sipping on nous nous (Moroccan coffee). This is music that touches all of your senses to create an experience like no other. The repetitive percussion performed by both Said Ag Ayad and Mohammed Ag Tahada is soothing as it cuts through everything and beats in your chest. Singer Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni sweetly asked after almost every song if the music was OK, which every time got a rousing cheer and slight chuckles from the crowd. 

After a few songs, group founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib came out to join the band and play the electric guitar with blues influences and sing lead. Some of the best parts of the show were the five part harmonies sung by most of the band. Music doesn’t have to sound like Rage Against The Machine to be protest fueled, where RATM screams “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” over and over again Tinariwen sings about the Tuareg people needing a homeland and willing to pick up arms to ensure it happens, something they actually walk the walk about throughout their years. While geo-political lyrics fill their songs, dance fills their music. Throughout the show the audience found it impossible to not head bob, foot stomp and clap along to songs until finally near the end almost everyone got up and danced to the infectious beats. 

Despite a language barrier (several of the band members only thanked the crowd in French and what little English was spoken was quite broken) the connection between crowd and performers was beautiful. One of the band members who didn’t play an instrument and sang only backup vocals was a clear fan favourite, as he would dance across the stage. Seeing the joy in his eyes being able to perform for so many eager listeners was infectious. Despite not knowing the song names and the band members not being able to say more than thank you to the crowd and singing songs about a free and independent Taureg people that is about as foreign of a subject matter for a white Canadian can be, the show was transcendent. I’m not a religious person, but the show was one of the most spiritual experiences I have ever had. My soul felt cleansed and filled with love and passion, I can close my eyes and meditate to their music, and their songs inspired by thousands of years of playing can be felt. It had been five long years since the last time Tinariwen played in Toronto and hopefully they come back sooner next time.

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