Mali-born rockers Tinariwen are leaving the desert behind to play Grand Central on Thursday, Nov. 10.
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Tassili is a vast Algerian mountain range with jagged cracking canyons, sloping dunes, and deep valleys. It is known for well-preserved ancient artifacts and prehistoric art dating back to the Neolithic Period. Bordering Libya, Mali, and Niger, the region was much more likely to be featured in National Geographic than Rolling Stone until Tinariwen, the Mali-born rockers who are playing Grand Central on Nov. 10, recorded their fifth album in Djanet, an oasis city founded by the band’s nomadic Touareg ancestors in the Middle Ages.
“Tassili is a place very important for Tinariwen,” says bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, who speaks the native Tamashek language as well as French. (We interviewed Ag Leche via email with the help of a translator.) “Our story began in this part of the Sahara, and, for the last 20 years, the team hasn’t had the occasion to go back before this opportunity to do the record session.”
Tinariwen’s story is legend: The band’s founders, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Hassan Ag Touhami, and Inteyeden Ag Ablil, began making music in the late 1970s, a time of terrible drought in Southern Algeria. Drawing on a thirst for water and a hunger for political and cultural freedom, their lyrics channeled the intense suffering of the period and earned them listeners among a generation of exiled Touareg youth for whom the band’s mélange of traditional African music and contemporary Western rock sounded a note of hope in hopeless times.
Tuareg collective Tinariwen's long, bloody trip brings them to Grand Central, in downtown Miami, on November 10. -- photo by Eric Mullet
On Nov. 10, Grand Central will host Tinariwen, a veritable blood diamond in the rough of world music. Founded by Mali native Ibrahim Ag Alhabib in the late ’70s, Tinariwen is a music collective of Tuareg people, a nomadic sect of villagers in the North African region of the Sahara Desert. Their music explores and blends native protest music, West African guitar, Middle Eastern pop, traditional Mali music, and traditional American rock and roll.
To recap Tinariwen’s history is to venture into the chaos of the region. Having witnessed his father’s execution at age 4, Ag Alhabib spent his childhood in Malian refugee camps before roaming in exile with fellow Tuaregs in Algeria and Libya. While in exile, Ag Alhabib joined forces with other Tuareg musicians to entertain their people. In 1980, (former?) President Muammar al-Gaddafi implored all young Tuareg men living illegally in Libya to join his desert army, an invitation that Ag Alhabib and other musicians accepted.
In 1985, Ag Alhabib joined another call to arms, this time from a Tuareg rebel movement. In the movement, Ag Alhabib met his future Tinariwen collaborators and began recording music on cassette tapes that eventually circulated throughout the Saharan region. The collective moved back to Ag Alhabib’s native Mali in 1989, where several band members joined the Tuareg rebel uprising against the Malian government. After two years of fighting and a peace agreement, Tinariwen, for the first time ever, was able to concentrate full time on music.
Tinariwen made its first recording outside of North Africa with The Radio Tisdas Sessions in 2001. The collective’s fifth album, Tassili, due out on Aug. 30th, features Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, who traveled to Algeria to record with the band, Wilco’s Nels Cline, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
The utter improbability of a roving band of Tuareg musicians landing in downtown Miami should be enough to get you to the show, which is a Rhythm Foundation production. If not, “Tenere Taqqim Tossam”, the Adebimpe-Malone collaboration off of Tassili, ought to do the trick.