Music possesses numerous unique powers, such as its ability to transport listeners to new places and open their minds to fresh perspectives. It can expose individuals to different cultures, take them to other eras, expand their horizons, and enable them to see the world in a new light. Recently, the Lincoln Theatre in DC served as a portal to the sun-soaked sands of the Sahara as the legendary Tuareg band Tinariwen graced the stage.
On June 7, a line of people wrapped around the Lincoln Theatre’s brick exterior, eagerly waiting to enter the sold-out show. Fans found solace in the notable faces adorning the Ben’s Chilli Bowl alley mural — the Obamas, Chuck Brown, and Dave Chappelle, to name a few. Prince, who would have turned 65 that evening, watched as attendees shuffled towards the door to experience the world-renowned band hailing from the West African nation of Mali.
Tinariwen, the legendary Grammy-winning collective, sings in Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, a large Berber ethnic group that principally inhabits the Sahara. While I cannot decipher the lyrics, I can vividly describe how the music made me feel. From the very first note, the concert was infused with an irresistible energy that reverberated throughout the venue. The mesmerizing guitar riffs, soulful vocals, and pulsating percussion captivated the audience. Tinariwen’s unique fusion of traditional Tuareg music, blues, and rock perfectly embodied the spirit of “desert blues.”
Watch the official music video for “Kek Alghalm” by Tinariwen on YouTube:
The band’s guitarists employ a distinctive style known as “assouf” (“nostalgia” in Tamashek), combining intricate fingerpicking patterns with pentatonic scales. Their music conveys both sorrow and longing while providing an outlet for dancing and forgetting one’s cares. Throughout the show, Tinariwen engaged the audience in call-and-response chants and handclaps, fostering a communal and participatory atmosphere that immersed everyone in the music.
Successful relationships often thrive when they bring together individuals with different personality types. U2 provides an example, with Bono’s energetic and captivating stage presence balanced by The Edge’s reserved demeanor. Touhami Ag Alhassane took on the role of the charismatic frontman during this performance, inspiring the audience to let loose, while other members, like Ibrahim Ag Alhabib maintained a more stoic presence.
In a city filled with diplomats, the audience at the Lincoln Theatre represented a diverse array of people from around the world and those exposed to various walks of life. Attendees dressed in traditional Tuareg clothing danced alongside individuals in Western attire. There was a palpable sense of unity and shared experience in the air.
Formed in the late ’70s by a group of Tuareg musicians, Tinariwen aimed to preserve their cultural heritage through music. Their ninth studio album, Amatssou, explores the common ground between their trademark desert blues and the vibrant country music of rural America. Their performance at the Lincoln Theatre demonstrated that the band has not only preserved their culture but also built bridges through their music.
Here are some photos of Tinariwen performing at Lincoln Theatre on June 7, 2023. All pictures by Will Colbert.