Cambodia meets Mali: Dengue Fever and Tinariwen at the Fonda Theatre

Story and Photos by Ruth Tesfai

I first remember hearing about Tinariwen when I was studying abroad in London. My friend was raving about them and was upset that he couldn’t get tickets to their show. I was curious but didn’t bother checking them out until 3 years later. I remember thinking, “I’ll probably regret this.” And I did. Because they’re good…REALLY GOOD. And so began my love affair with Malian music. It’s similar but different. Foreign but familiar. In what seemed like divine intervention, they performed live in my city a couple months later. It was an incredible night. Their music truly transcends time and space – it’s a spiritual experience. Hassan’s energy on stage is pure joy. Abdullah’s skills on the guitar, fire. And you can’t forget their percussionist, Said. His drumming moved everyone into a trance! Though that night was perfect,  the band was missing their lead and founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. He chose to stay back home for the U.S. tour for undisclosed reasons. I was bummed but wished him well and hoped he would rejoin them for a future tour.

You could imagine my excitement when I heard they were going to release a new album, “Elwan”. I hoped they would return to LA again for their tour – this time with Ibrahim. This past Wednesday, I won tickets to a very intimate show with Tinariwen (thank you KCRW!). I held my breath until the band came on and like an answer to my prayers, Ibrahim walked on stage. I was soon reminded why they are my favorite band and that I could not get enough. I quickly purchased tickets to their show at the Fonda Theatre.

The opener for their show was Dengue Fever, a very popular Cambodian psychedelic rock band. I never heard of them before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. My first impression was that their lead singer, Chhom Nimol, had such a beautiful voice. Her style of singing actually reminded me of the way Habesha or Saharan women sing. African with a hint of Arabia. I couldn’t understand her lyrics but I could feel them. It quickly made sense why Dengue Fever was opening for Tinariwen.

Shortly after, Tinariwen took to the stage. Unlike Dengue Fever’s high energy, they started off with their slower, low energy tracks, really setting the mood. After 20 minutes or so, Ibrahim walked on stage to join the rest of the band. He received a very warm welcome and seemed genuinely humbled. They continued their show, interspersing their selections with new tracks and old favorites. Each member was given their turn to shine. They really put on a show, performing for almost 2 hours, including an encore. The energy towards the end was high, leaving everyone with good vibes.

Unfortunately, the venue didn’t allow for much interaction between the band and the audience. One thing I treasure about Tinariwen is their openness to interact with their fans after each show. Unlike the 2015 show at the Regent Theatre (one of my favorite concert venues!), everyone was quickly forced out. Despite this, a couple band members came out to greet their fans. Hassan even went outside to talk to people and take photos with them. He’s a great guy with an amazing spirit!

Overall, both Tinariwen and Dengue Fever put on memorable performances. The vibes were truly high that night. Looking forward to their next tour!

Ruth Tesfai is a lover of world arts and culture, spirituality and social justice. Her favorite mediums are music, dance, literature, film and food – mediums that unite rather than divide. As a proud Africana, her soul beats strongly and passionately to any forms that are African-related, wherever they can be found. Though she recognizes the limitations of our beloved city, she is also very conscious of its blessings, as many of her favorite artists are drawn here! You can find Ruth in the front row of live shows, dancing, volunteering, traveling, indulging in a Chipotle burrito bowl or having a one-on-one session with nature. 

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