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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Review: Tinariwen electrifies while Mulatu Astatke coasts in Abu Dhabi Warehouse421 gigs

Music may not have been the main event, but Warehouse 421's launch weekend hosted some of the most sublime sounds one can hear, courtesy of Mulatu Astatke and Tinariwen.
Tinariwen perform on the opening day of Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi on Thursday. Satish Kumar / The National
Tinariwen perform on the opening day of Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi on Thursday. Satish Kumar / The National

The music may not have been the main event, but I’d wager that plenty of visitors to Warehouse 421’s opening weekend will count their most memorable moments as being in front of the Mina Beats stage, which boasted an inspirational programme of cool and credible artists of the kind rarely seen in the capital.

The new arts hub opened for business on Thursday night with a performance from Tinariwen that fantastical group of itinerant Tuareg tribesmen who became Grammy Award-winning world music superstars after being “discovered” about 15 years ago.

Much like their lives, their music is steeped in the spirit of the Sahara, and so it felt fitting that a stark wind was blowing across the open-air performance space, while the stage was artfully flanked by the battered wooden hulks of old dhows.

The Tinariwen sound is a mix of traditional folk song with rock instrumentation – tribal, chanted drones performed on electric guitars – that creates a stark, rhythmic “desert blues” entirely unlike the patented school of fellow Malian exports Ali Farka Touré & Boubacar Traoré.

“Shukran, ça va, is it good?” asked Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, one of two players who swapped baying vocals and snaking guitar lines, speaking in a mix of cracked Arabic, French and English.

The performance was better than good, it was sublime, magical and universal – Abu Dhabi’s multicultural crowd were on their feet as they clapped ecstatically to this immense, raw and primal sound.

More people turned out of Friday to hear Mulatu Astatke, the 71-year-old composer known as “the father of Ethio-jazz”, a distinctly Africanised take on the most American of art forms.

The first third of the concert was wonderful. Revisiting heyday recordings from the 1960s and 1970s, Astatke stood in the centre of the stage, serenely striking his vibraphone.

Around him, the eight-piece band chilled with intensity. Two percussionists, upright bass, piano and cello worked-up an exotic, ethereal, textured groove; on top, cascading, modal melody lines unravelled from the two horns. It’s a quixotic sound that memorably immortalised on the soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch movie Broken Flowers, with tunes including Yèkèrmo Sèw and Yègellé Tezeta both performed here.

Things unwound a little mid-set, bogged down in cluttered, unfocused funk-flavoured breakdowns, and often the soloists favoured showmanship over melodic invention.

The sudden appearance of a rhyme-less MC midway served only as an unwelcome intrusion to shatter the ethereal mood conjured so meaningfully before. In the final portion of the set, Astatke – now 71 years old, in fairness – seemed content to strike a cowbell and let the sonics unfold around him, adrift amid the waves of his own legend.

• For more details of Warehouse 421 visit www.warehouse421.ae