From Sahara to Southwest: Tinariwen Plays Taos

Written by Garrett Hazelwood

Photos by Tanner Williams

It was raining this past Tuesday in Taos, New Mexico. Just a soft mist falling in the high desert, and as local promoter Jerry Schwartz led us out to see the Airstream trailer from which the KNCE radio station is broadcast, he explained what a rare gift it was to get a storm rolling through. We had come to Taos to see another rarity passing through the small southwestern town, Tinariwen, a band of celebrated Tuareg musicians with a Grammy and a nearly forty year history of making genre-defying music. 


That night, Tinariwen was to make their third appearance in Taos in recent years. They were playing in the wide-open mesa on the outskirts of town, at the Taos Mesa Brewing Mothership. The Mothership––an aluminum Quonset hut built with DIY aesthetic and a dash of steampunk flair––houses the brewery, a taproom, and an indoor concert venue. It’s part of a compound that includes an outdoor amphitheater with capacity for an audience of 2,500; the Hotel Luna Mystica, which offers campground facilities and rents vintage trailers to visitors; and the aforementioned trailer-studio of KNCE-FM radio.

With multiple venues and a radio station onsite, the camp at Taos Mesa Brewing has become the hub of a surprisingly rich music scene in Taos. The site is frequently host to small-scale festivals with big-name artists, like the Jumpsuit Family Gathering coming in early September, headlining Polish Ambassador, Ayla Nereo, and Saqi. The music scene out on the mesa also extends far beyond electronic, though, featuring of an eclectic mix of genres ranging from delta blues to folk to Brazilian hip-hop. 

Last Tuesday’s sold out Tinariwen show is a testament to the impressive amount of international music that finds its way to Taos these days, thanks in no small measure to Jerry Schwartz, part owner of KNCE radio and a core member of Roots and Wires Presents, a collective of promoters that fills the Taos music calendar with a steady stream of global talent.

Tinariwen, for its part, hails from the Saharan desert in Mali, where the nomadic Tuareg people have lived for millennia. For generations now, the Tuareg have been struggling for independence and to preserve their way of life while being marginalized by the governments controlling their ancestral territory. Members of Tinariwen have been refugees, exiles, revolutionary fighters, and targets of terrorist violence. Their music combines activism, rebellion, and poignant beauty in equal measure, drawing upon the influence of their traditional music while being driven largely by electric guitars. 

The result is something akin to the blues in its raw, plaintive vocals and stripped down guitar. Yet at the show on Tuesday night, it often tended toward the high energy of rock ’n’ roll, building into crescendos that churned the whole tightly packed crowd into a fever of dancing as the set accelerated from song to song. Though the band is somewhat loosely knit and frequently takes on or drops members, there were six men on stage at the show in Taos: two playing electric guitars, one with a bass, one singing and playing an acoustic guitar, one hand percussionist, and one member singing backup and dancing. 

The music was minimalist and the equipment onstage limited. They would often chant together and harmonize above the riffing guitars, and there was something about them that suggested a jam band in the fluid way they wove between songs and descended into long stretches of dueling guitars, occasionally veering off into funky bass lines that sent ripples through the crowd. 

But while the set Tinariwen played resisted categorization and slipped easily in tone between celebration and sadness, exuberance and calm, Tinariwen proved themselves masters of controlling a crowd. What began with head bobbing and swaying soon accelerated into a level of pumping energy that bordered on frenzy. By the end, we were left sweating and dancing, cheering for a second encore, finally spilling out into the crisp desert air smiling and satisfied. 

Tinariwen’s latest nineteen-stop tour ended last week in Phoenix. We can only hope they make their way back to the states for another one soon. In the meantime, check them out at where you can pick up an album and keep tabs on their upcoming shows.