Call Me Sand
Tuareg travelers wander through with their desert blues
Who were these masked men? Attired in anonymous sand-repellent robes and head scarves, Tinariwen strode onto the Joe’s Pub stage last Wednesday as though the five mustached musicians, and their lone female singer, had just been teleported from the southern Sahara. Indeed, the life of an itinerant musician bears more than a passing resemblance to Tinariwen’s nomadic Tuareg tribe, whose name, borrowed by Volkswagen for its wanderlust connotations, actually means “abandoned by the gods.” Yet one could hear a diaspora’s worth of God-given musical echoes in this sextet’s vamping electric guitars, chanted vocal chorus, clapping hands, and djembe drum.
Tinariwen started as a large acoustic ensemble in 1982 and today encapsulate rock’s über-narrative. Having discovered electric instruments while exiled during the tribe’s only fairly recently resolved rebellion against Mali’s government, they developed a unique variation of the West Africa–seeded electric blues that emerged from the Mississippi Delta. Singer-guitarist Ibrahim Al Alhabib picked his instrument with a couple of fingers, letting melodic patterns and riffs somewhere between Skip James and John Cipollina emerge in unison with Tamashek-language lyrics like “I am a traveler in the lone desert/It’s nothing special.” Actually, it increasingly is something special, insofar as the Tuareg’s numbers have dwindled in recent years thanks to drought and the urban lure.
Co-guitarist Alhousseini Abdoulahi switched to acoustic guitar a few songs into the evening’s first show and began flat-picking blistering solos like some late-’60s San Francisco acidhead. The music—part trance, part provocation—took on complexity as Mina Walet Umar clapped out syncopated patterns above the band’s loping 6/8 grooves. The songs about loneliness, nostalgia, and of course, deserts (the band’s name in Tamashek) demanded surrender while also inspiring a transportive sort of joy reflected in singer-guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid’s bewitching dance moves. Tinariwen opened the show with the flute-and-drone ambience of “Assoul” and ended it with “Arawan,” an apocalyptic rap tune about finding their camp empty and getting “stuck in the mud, up to my camel’s knees.” Actually, Tinariwen brought the camp to us before riding off to another town, another stage, another desert. RICHARD GEHR
Worship and Swing
Wynton presides over jazz’s new Time Warner Center home
Jazz at Lincoln Center Opening
Frederick P. Rose Hall
October 21 through November 7
Wynton Marsalis isn’t the only person who refers to Frederick P. Rose Hall as the House of Swing, but his is the voice that counts. Two weeks ago, he delivered the venue’s first public solo, a litany of muezzin-like trumpet whinnies on his own “Call to Prayer.” The fact that this invocation led to another one—”Resolution,” from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme—suggested “house of worship” as another Rose Hall epithet, despite the mall downstairs, the traffic outside, and the multiplex carpet in the foyer.
The rumors are true: Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new facility delivers on its promise of crystalline sound and extravagant views. And over the course of a three-week opening festival, it passed the versatility test with no apparent strain. The jewel-box-like, 1,200-seat Rose Theater suited not only Cassandra Wilson, but also Ricky Scaggs and Taj Mahal. The intimate Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola made up for its cumbersome moniker with a Bill Charlap quintet that sounded crisp and well proportioned from any vantage. The Allen Room, with its amphitheater seating and dramatic park view, proved more than merely elegant: Its festival roster ranged from Brazil’s percussive fabulist Hermeto Pascoal to a jazz-and-verse summit matching the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, John Sinclair, and Sonia Sanchez with accompaniment by bassist Reggie Workman, saxophonist Sonny Fortune, and drummer Rashied Ali. “I know something about talking with ghosts,” murmured poet Yusef Komunyakaa at one of these shows, while headlights flickered on the glass behind him.
If by “ghosts” Komunyakaa had meant the holographic video portraits in the nearby Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, JALC’s work would be complete. But the self-proclaimed Jazz Center of the Universe has no intention of becoming a mausoleum. Some of its remaining challenges are practical, like stratospheric ticket prices and the food at Dizzy’s. More dangerously, a programming philosophy that courts the youth vote with vibraphonist Stefon Harris runs the risk of surrendering the place to all those spirits. But there’s enough vitality passing through these halls to allow for the pragmatic inclusiveness that Wynton already claims. JALC II is off to a good start. NATE CHINEN