Live Concert Photography: Tinariwen with Dengue Fever at Brooklyn Bowl 4/16/17
Now, if you’ve been frequenting this site over the past couple of years, you’d know that I’ve written quite a lot about the internationally renowned band, Tinariwen. The act can trace its origins to back to the late 1970s when the band’s founding member guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, joined a small group of Tuareg rebels living in refugee camps in Libya and Algeria. The group of rebels Ag Alhabib hooked up with had been influenced by radical chaabi protest music of Moroccan groups like Nass El Ghiwane and Jil Jilala, Algerian pop rai, and western artists like Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, Dire Straits, Jimi Hendrix, Boney M, and Bob Marley — and they started writing music that meshed the traditional folk music of their people with Western rock, reggae and blues-leaning arrangements. Upon relocating to Tamanrasset, Algeria, Ag Alhabib started a band with Alhassane Ag Touhami and brothers Inteyeden Ag Ablil and Liya Ag Ablil that had played the traditional Taureg music at various weddings, parties and other occasions across both Algeria and Libya. Interestingly, as the story goes, when the quartet had started, they didn’t have a name; but people across the region, who had seen them play had begun calling them Kel Tinariwen, which in the Tamashek language (the tongue of the Taureg people) translates roughly as “The People of the Deserts” or “The Desert Boys.”
In 1980, Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi issued a decree inviting all young Tuareg men, who were living illegally in Libya to receive full military training, as part of his dream of forming a Saharan regiment, comprised of the best young Tuareg fighters to further his territorial ambitions in Chad, Niger, and elsewhere across Northern Africa. Al Alhabib and his bandmates answered the call and received military training. Whether or not the founding members of the band truly believed in Gaddafi’s military ambitions would be difficult to say — but on a practical level, a steady paycheck to support yourself and your family back home certainly is an enticement. Five years later, Ag Alhabib, Ag Touhami and the Ag Ablil brothers answered a similar call by leaders of the Libyan Tuareg movement, who desired an autonomous homeland for their people, and wound up meeting fellow musicians Keddou Ag Ossade, Mohammed Ag Itlale (a.k.a “Japonais”), Sweiloum Ag Alhousseyni, Abouhadid Ag Alhousseyni, and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni — all who had sang and played guitar. At this point, the lineup of Tinariwen was completed and the members of the collective began writing songs about the issues and concerns of their people.
The members of the band built a makeshift studio and then vowed to record and then distribute music for free for anyone who supplied them a blank cassette tape. And perhaps unsurprisingly, their DIY cassettes were highly sought after and were traded throughout Saharan Africa.
In 1989 the members of the collective had left Libya and relocated to Ag Alhabib’s birthplace of Tessalit, Mali; but by the next year, Mail’s Tuareg population revolted against the Malian government — with some members of the collective participating as rebel fighters in that conflict. After the Tamanrasset Accords were reached and agreed upon in early 1991, the members of Tinariwen, who had fought in the conflict had left the military and devoted themselves to their music full-time. By 1992, some of the members of the band went to Abidjan, Ivory Coast to record a cassette at JBZ Studios, which they followed up with extensive gigs for their fellow Tuaregs across Saharan Africa — and it also helped further establish the band’s reputation by word-of-mouth.
Thanks in part to a collaboration with renowned French world music ensemble Lo’Jo Tinariwen started to receive greater international attention outside of Saharan Africa, including their first British live set at Africa Oye, one of the UK’s largest African music/African Diaspora festival. Building on the increasing buzz they were receiving, the band released their full-length debut The Radio Tisdas Sessions, which was their first recorded effort to be released outside of Northern Africa. Interestingly, since their formation, the collective has gone through a series of lineup changes, incorporating a younger generation of Tuareg musicians, who haven’t fought during the military conflicts, including bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, percussionist Said Ag Ayad, guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid, guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida, and vocalists Wonou Walet Sidati and the Walet Oumar sisters.
But despite the lineup changes, Tinariwen has seen growing international attention, touring regularly across the European Union, North America, Japan and Australia, frequently playing sets at some of the world’s biggest music festivals — such as Glastonbury, Coachella, Roskilde, Les Vieilles Charrues, WOMAD, FMM Sines, Printemps de Bourges and others, as well as some of the world’s best known music venues. And while employing Western arrangements and instrumentation, their sound continually evokes the surreal and brutally harsh beauty of the Saharan Desert, the poetry and wisdom of a rough and tumble, proud and rebellious people, whose old-fashioned way of life is rapidly disappearing as a result of technology and encroaching Westernization. Along with that, a bloody and contentious series of religious and ethnic conflicts and wars have splintered several nations across the region — including most recently Mali and Libya, where members of Tinariwen have proudly called home at various points of the band’s existence. Unsurprisingly, Tinariwen’s latest album Elwan (which translates into English as The Elephants) thematically focuses on the impact of Westernization and technology has had on their people, the band’s life of forced exile, and their longing for their ancestral homeland.
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of catching Tinariwen headline the second night of their two night run at Brooklyn Bowl, and it featured the band playing material off their two most recent albums, Elwan and Emmar. Opening the night was the critically acclaimed Los Angeles, CA-based Cambodian music act Dengue Fever. Check out some photos from the show below.
Comprised of Cambodian-born, Los Angeles-based Chhom Nimol (vocals), siblings Zax (guitar, vocals) and Ethan Holtzman (Farfisa organ), Senon Williams (bass), David Ralicke (saxophone, keys) and Paul Smith (drums), the Los Angeles, CA-based Cambodian-tinged psych rock and indie rock quintet Dengue Fever can trace their origins to the late 1990s when the band’s Ethan Holtzman went on a 6 month trek through Southeast Asia. Ethan Holtzman returned to Los Angeles with a suitcase crammed full of cassette tapes of Cambodian music and coincidentally, his brother Zac had discovered some of the same music while he was working in a San Francisco music store. When they reunited, the Holtzman brothers bonded over their mutual love of Cambodian music and in 2002 they founded Dengue Fever with David Ralicke, who had stints playing with Beck and Brazzaville and Senon Williams, who was a member of Radar Brothers. The band’s founding quartet discovered the Cambodian-born vocalist Chhom Nimol, a well-known vocalist in her native Cambodia, performing at a nightclub in the Little Phnom Penh section of Long Beach, CA.
With the release of eight full-length albums, Dengue Fever received attention for covers of classic 1960s Cambodian rock songs by Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron, and Ros Serey Sothea, originals written in English by the Holtzman Brothers before being translated into Khmer and a series of original tunes written and sung in English. And whether sung in her native Khmer and in English, Nimol’s vocals are hauntingly gorgeous.