06/26/2010 02:28 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Tinariwen Simplicity in the District of Complexity

I have been a fan of Tinariwen (a band of nomadic exile musicians of Tuareg descent) for exactly as long as I have been listening to them, i.e. for about a year. When I found out that they were going to play at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC, I saddled up my Hyundai Elantra and hopped on the Pennsylvania turnpike. I spent the Friday afternoon, with nomadic circularity of my DC visits, taxi-ing my mom (who lives in Alexandria) from a bank to the Columbia Gardens cemetery (to "check" on my dad and grandmother) to the nearby Goodwill store (that happened to have a nice Nakamichi CD player for only $29.99 that I didn't buy) and, finally, to the Harris Teeter in the Pentagon City. A few hours later, banded together with my brother and my sister-in-law, I arrived at the 9:30 Club at 8:30pm which proved to be illuminatingly too early.

As I watched my brother resist being branded with the club's ink-stamp (on the grounds that the ink is absorbed by the skin and then has to be subsequently filtered out by one's liver, a valid enough point) I watched Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the founder of Tinariwen (who at the age of 4 saw his Tuareg rebel father executed), walk through the door. There was no fanfare to his entrance: just a slim guy, with a characteristic afro, passing from one space to another. It was just early enough that the foyer was almost empty, with the exception of myself, my brother and the guy on the door looking for a way around the rubber-stamp issue. Ibrahim, with nomadic seamlessness, navigated right through the traffic jam that had been created by my brother and, I believe, having noticed me notice him, looked right through me, continuing to move. The all-too-familiar face from the album cover sliced through me almost unnoticed like an anonymous hand at a photo op in this town of pressing flesh.

As I turned around and followed Ibrahim with my eyes, I saw him cut an effective diagonal through the still empty space of the dance floor of the club and disappear out of sight, like a desert mirage. I tried to follow but my Western mind got immediately stimulus-bound by the "merch" stand. I bought a black t-shirt with a quote from Ibrahim that organized my consciousness for the rest of the evening.

The opening act, I believe, the Geologist, was a perfect juxtaposition for what was to follow. One guy, a mixing station, a sonic universe of intriguing electronic complexities. As if startled by the magnitude of the juxtaposition himself, Geologist didn't excavate too long and shortly left the stage. The cyclically empty space of the club finally filled up, out came Tinariwen, in all its indescribable Saharan rhythm-and-flow, and the mostly standing crowd started rippling with dance moves and self-transcendence.

The Friday evening ended - as they all do - with the night, which, in its turn, was followed by this Saturday morning. As I cut my way through the six lanes of the infamous DC beltway, I popped in a CD of Tinariwen (which by the way means "The Empty Spaces") and thought about the endless self-importance of this District of Complexity with its never-ceasing stream of tumbling political weeds, Ibrahim's quote glaring in white on my t-shirt-black chest. Which was: "Simplicity is freedom." Short enough for a constitution, heh?