Concert Review

Foreign tongues at the Cradle with Sophie Hunger and Tinariwen, 11/13/11

Scarcely before the ringing in my ears from Bombadil’s album release party could fade, I found myself back at Cat’s Cradle for something worlds away, both sonically and geographically.

Sophie Hunger was absolutely charming. The Sunday night crowd started out pretty far back from the stage, slowly trickling in and milling about, but by the end of her set she had coaxed more than a few to the front to better catch her heartfelt lyrics and genuine enthusiasm. Vocally she sounds a bit like Feist. They both have that soft, crooning quality in their voices, but Hunger proved she was no stranger to belting out a verse or two where necessary. She switched between singing in English, German and French fluidly and frequently, so I probably only caught a fraction of the lyrics, but I like to think the meaning still came through.

It’s hard to pin her sound down to a specific genre. She herself switched between guitar and piano throughout the set and was accompanied by Michael Flury (trombonist/box player/chest percussionist) and Christian Prader (flautist/guitarist/pianist). Some songs were folk in the best tradition of the genre, while others sounded of heavy jazz influences mixed in with who knows what else. Whatever the influences, it was all a pleasure to listen to. Her endearing solo acoustic “Sophie Hunger Blues” was the song that won me over, and I could tell I wasn’t the only one. The personal narrative, catchy melody and raw emotion she put into that song had the audience smiling and laughing in a big way.

From Swiss-born, European bred folk/jazz fusion we somehow made the transition to acoustic Saharan desert blues from former African rebels. For the uninitiated, Tiniariwen is a group from northern Mali made up of Touareg rebels. They received military training in Libya and fought for the rights of oppressed nomadic peoples in the Touareg rebellion. Sung in a Berber language called Tamashek, their songs carry the revolutionary message of the cause they fought for.

If you’re not intrigued yet, then I really just don’t know what to tell you.

Before they even came on stage there were enough guitars set up to comfortably field all of Broken Social Scene, plus a few percussion instruments whose origins I could only guess at. The band was all robes and cloth when they did come out, certainly looking the part of desert bluesmen. A few greetings in what sounded like French (why didn’t I take French?) and they were off. You might not think that dusty, Middle Eastern folk and blues would be that danceable, but it definitely is. The percussionist (playing either a hand drum or a large half-sphere gourd of some sort hit with his palms and two lighters) and bassist laid down a simple but irresistible groove that the rest of the band built on. To their credit, they kept the crowd fully engaged throughout the night. I’m pretty sure I even spotted whatever the slow moving, mid-to-late-thirties equivalent of a mosh pit would be, but folks were packed too tight for me to venture out and investigate further.

Tinariwen’s latest release, Tassili, has more of an acoustic sound to it, a departure from their previous albums which made extensive use of the electric guitar. The set drew heavily form the new album, but they broke out the ax for several numbers, including one of my absolute favorites, “Amassakoul ‘n’ Ténéré.”

Tinariwen has been gaining a fair amount of international attention recently. There’s even a track on Tassili featuring Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV On The Radio fame. If you haven’t heard about them yet, you probably will soon. If you haven’t listened to them yet, go ahead and do yourself a favor. I love local music but there’s nothing like some African desert blues to broaden one’s musical horizons.