A bass chord and a chorus of male voices open the dance, followed by youyous, cries and handclaps. Then a powerful female voice curls upwards under the dome of the Bouffes du Nord. On Saturday December 13th 2014, in Paris, Tinariwen brought the singer Lalla Badi together with an audience for something more, so much more, than a simple straightforward concert.
That night, under the auspices of this grand dame of Tamashek culture, the Malian group invited everyone to celebrate the hypnotic, electrifying nuptials of the guitar and the tindé (small drum): A unique soirée normally reserved for more intimate spheres - around a fire in the desert in southern Algeria perhaps, or in the yard of house somewhere in the northern Mali. Touareg culture donned its finest apparel, there in the heart of Paris, in the name of communion, emotion, dance and trance.
Her face chiselled with wrinkles, her eye bright and vivid, at the age of 75, Lalla Badi remains the queen of tindé – a word that denotes both an instrument (a mortar covered by a taut goatskin) played exclusively by women, and a poetic repertoire which is sung at ceremonies and special occasions. She’s also the incarnation of Touareg femininity par excellence, the pillar of that society: free, strong, far removed from the subservience that so often exists elsewhere. Respected.
Originally from Timiaoune in the far south of the Algerian Sahara, now living in Tamanrasset, Lalla Badi became a mentor to the Touareg in the 1970s, thanks both to her mastery of this musical genre and her commitment to the Touareg cause. Back then she took in the ishumars (unemployed vagrants), those Touareg who had set off to Libya in search of a better life. Like them, the future members of Tinariwen also fled repression and the crippling droughts of northern Mali in those dark years, stopping off in Algeria along the way. Lalla Badi took them under her wing, became like a mother to them, a big sister, an accomplice.
It was during this period that Ibrahim ag Alhabib, Hassan ag Touhami and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni picked up the guitar and forged a style from the pulsating rhythm of the tindé and the gait of the camel. Modernity married tradition. The contemporary sound of the desert was on its way.
On that night in Paris, by coming to the front of stage and keeling down at the feet of this great woman, guitars slung over their shoulders, Tinariwen lavished gratitude on Lalla Badi, and sealed their respect forever. As if blessed by this diva, who hadn’t performed in France for over thirty years, this unique encounter could then get underway, with its festive rather than melancholic repertoire ensuing.
With this concert, that came at the very end of a tour comprising more than 130 dates, undertaken in part to promote their last album Emmaar, Tinariwen pay an extraordinary homage to the grandeur and vitality of Tamashek culture. The recording of that night will no doubt remain in the annals of music, just as it will remain carved in the head and heart of its audience.