Tinariwen founder member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, a wandering musician and proud Tuareg from Mali, is not the flashiest guitarist on the global blues rock stage.
Rest assured, though, the man isn’t losing much sleep over such things.
Ibrahim, in his late 50s, lets his stirringly intense musicianship do the talking. He plugs in for deeply raw blues, African style.
At KL Live on Monday, the frizzly-haired Ibrahim, alongside his Tinariwen bandmates, proved why he remains a formidable presence in this hard-touring Malian desert blues collective, which he co-founded in a refugee camp in North Africa in the late 1970s.
It has taken forever for an African band like Tinariwen to play a show in KL. When it mattered, the fans and curious masses here did come through for the band. Only two other high-profile African guitar-based acts have performed in KL – Rachid Taha in 2001 and Orchestra Baobab in 2005.
The 1,000-odd audience at KL Live got a headstart on the desert blues brew when Tinariwen’s longstanding members Alhassane Ag Touhami and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni kicked off the concert, both frontmen/guitarists comfortably drifting and pulsing through a laidback Saharan dreamscape.
For Alhassane and Abdallah, who have been in Tinariwen since its breakthrough album Amassakoul in 2004, nothing needed to be hurried. Percussionist Said Ag Ayad, stinging his palms on a modest hand-drum, was all the percussive backdrop required on the night.
The entire band, decked in traditional Tuareg garb, kept it loose as it struck up the camelback rhythms.
Newer tunes, especially the lovelorn surge across Talyat (Girl) and the heady acoustic swirl on Assawt (The Voice Of Tamashek Women), both from this year’s Elwan (The Elephants) album, struck a chord.
In many ways, you didn’t need to understand Tinariwen’s Tamashek language to tap into the soulful feel of its infectious call-and-response vocals, with songs mostly about the nomadic Tuareg people lashed by drought, war, poverty and misfortune.
At the heart of it, the band’s themes of conflict and turmoil are never short of spirited and amplified inspiration.
With seven studio albums made since 2001, this was Tinariwen showing us why it is, arguably, the most popular guitar-based band from the African continent. The vibe had to be spot on, the setlist was mostly secondary.
It took five songs at KL Live to finally see Ibrahim, in a purple robe, walking on stage. Judging by how he lifted Tinariwen’s show several notches up, I have to say the veteran axeman remains an electrifying persona.
It was purely the Ibrahim Ag Alhabib Purple Haze experience when he took charge of seven tunes. It wasn’t so much a fireworks show. Instead he offered a subtle menace of languidly fired notes and delicious licks, with tasty distortion on the side.
Despite his distant stares, which seemed detached, he did acknowledge the audience with a smile.
When Ibrahim revisited the ragged glory years of Amassakoul ’N’ Tenere, a cornerstone early Tinariwen tune, it seemed the “traveller in the desert” was in full flight. His recent work also shouldn’t be overlooked as he held the audience under his sleepwalking spell on Nannuflay (Fulfilled).
Through the evening, there were enough polite hip-swaying and handclaps from the audience, with the restless crowd, mostly outside the seated area, really up for it, willing the band’s hypnotic drone-some blues on. Whoops and whistles from the floor ensued as the show came to a close.
Tinariwen, sensing a need for a brash encore after a solid 16-song set, obliged with the heavily distorted blast on Sastanaqqam (I Question You), courtesy of the groovy all-dancing Abdallah taking centrestage with his fiesta red Fender guitar.
That left the entire KL Live in a dizzy spin, with visions of glorious campfires in Timbuktu conjured up.
Didn’t we say that Tinariwen is clearly a capable band that can really rock out?
The Tinariwen show in KL was presented by culture and arts organisation Pusaka and Selangor Youth Community.