Tinariwen, Fiddlers, Bristol

Fight for the perfect rhythm
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The Independent Culture

So, how many guitarists does one need in a band? Seven members of the acclaimed Touareg group Tinariwen are on stage and there are five guitarists laying down sparse and funky rock'n'roll riffs for the packed Fiddlers crowd. Next to me is Robert Plant's lead guitarist, Justin Adams. No stranger to the Malian blues sound since his groundbreaking Desert Road album, Adams has worked closely with Tinariwen and explains that there are a further three or four guitarists that haven't made the UK tour. He believes that Tinariwen is more about a particular fluid style than a regular band set-up.

Looking at the traditionally garbed entourage, standing in a line with their obligatory turbans and electric guitars, you can see his point. The only break in the guitar chain is the percussionist Said Ag Ayad and the striking female vocalist Mina Wallet Oumar. It seems that there are two lead guitarists and three fluid lead vocalists. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the bandleader, stands in the middle, etched brown face unsmiling, fully concentrating on his rockabilly guitar licks and lyrics inspired by exile, love, and social upheaval of the Touareg people. Apparently it's a breach of etiquette to not wear a headscarf in front of strangers, but in the second set he lets his wild locks flow free and no one seems to mind.

Next to him stands Alhousseini Abdoulahi; the most laid-back member of the group, in part reflecting his lyrics about love, unity, and reconciliation. The third lead vocalist, and elder statesman of the group, Alassane Touhami, is also the most animated on stage. Wearing the most traditional Touareg costume, cutting an imposing figure with his flowing black robes and turban, he smiles warmly throughout, and often moves to the front of the stage to entice the audience to dance along with him. The rhythm section stands to the left, consisting of the single hand-drum percussionist Said, and the bass guitarist, Eyadou Ag Leche. One of the youngest members of the group, Eyadou was born in Kidal in 1978 and exiled to Tamanrasset at an early age.

Tonight, the band performs two sets. This can often be a dangerous precedent to set for audiences more accustomed to a straight hour-and-a-half show, but tonight it is essential. In the first half the band look slightly awkward, the chugging blues riffs reminiscent of Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley, just about compensating for the distinct lack of energy onstage. Although the title track to their acclaimed album Amassakoul 'N' Ténéré and "Aldhechen Manin" (the latter with its languorous camel-step groove) enchant, there is something lacking. When the compere says that the band are taking a 20-minute break to recharge their batteries, one wonders how they'd feel if they really broke sweat.

However, the second set is charged and the band really starts to gel. Several members of the band shimmy to the front of the stage, and Mina Wallet Oumar starts to make her demure presence felt with handclaps, wails, and slightly sensuous dance steps. For once the band's hype as "best new African guitar band" begins to have some resonance. "Chet Boghassa" is more Bob Marley than Bob Dylan, with a chug-ging steam train-like rhythm that gets the crowd bobbing along happily.

All the band join in for the choruses, with "Chatma" providing a satisfying blend of call-and-response vocals accompanied by a trance-inducing Ali-Farka Toure-style blues riff. On this track Ibrahim sings "at the gates of Kidal we must assemble and fight, as strong as you might be, you will burn in your fire". It is a stark reminder of the band's violent roots in Gadafi's military training camps in Libya, and a welcome reminder that the oft-bandied quote of "swapping guns for guitars" is, indeed, a liberating and invigorating one.