Desert rock

Tinariwen: ‘the Rolling Stones of the Sahara’

BAD TO THE BONE<br>Dude! Desert nomads? Rebel soldiers? If your band doesn’t have at least one Touareg in it, don’t even get close to the stage when Tinariwen is in town.

Dude! Desert nomads? Rebel soldiers? If your band doesn’t have at least one Touareg in it, don’t even get close to the stage when Tinariwen is in town.

Courtesy Of Tinariwen

Preview: Tinariwen, with Ramatou Diakite Sat., April 15,7:30 p.m. Laxson Auditorium Tickets: $14-$2 University Box Office, 898-6333

In a world where a television news story can be broadcast from the other side of the planet via video cell phone, it should not come as a surprise that a band from western Africa could make it all the way to a stage in Chico.

In fact, Chico State University’s Chico Performances regularly brings in acts from West Africa: Habib Koité (Mali), Mamadou Diabate (Mali), Angelique Kidjo (Benin), Baba Maal (Senegal) and the Drummers of West Africa (Senegal) have all graced the Laxson Auditorium stage and played to packed houses just in the past three years.

But what about a world in which centuries-old nomads from the Sahara Desert end up with guitars as well as guns in their hands as they fight a rebellion against a 20th-century dictatorship? And emerge from the other side of that far-off desert conflict with an amplified, hypnotic, rock-'n'-roll-meets-West Africa style of music? And find their way onto the Laxson stage? It’s an unfathomably small world indeed.

The desert rock group in question is Tinariwen, and the group, along with Malian pop/blues star Ramatou Diakite, is playing at Chico State this weekend.

Tinariwen is also from Mali, a West African country largely consumed by the Sahara Desert, but the men and women of this band with the name that translates as “the deserts” identify more with the Touareg desert nomads who have historically traveled and traded throughout a desert region that spreads through the modern nations of Niger, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso in addition to Mali.

It was during the mid-'80s that the band’s members first began coming together. In the aftermath of earlier ill-fated rebellions against French colonization, and in the face of the poor economies of failing countries and crippling droughts in the region, Touaregs—a virtually banished people with no country to call home—were banding together in rebel camps to fight against Malian and Nigerian dictatorships. It was in these camps where the western sounds of Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Bob Marley were absorbed, and a new music was created to give voice to the plight of the people of the desert.

It all began with Ibrahim Ag Alhabibe, a Malian who started the group when he purchased a very untraditional instrument, a guitar, and wrote the first Tinariwen songs to tell the story of the Touareg people. As he met and shared songs with other Touaregs, the band began to take shape as it rehearsed between military training. Cassettes of its music began to spread, inspiring the rebellion. At one point, Tinariwen was even banned by the Malian government, and anyone listening to the group’s music could face prison.

Of course Ibrahim and his band mates were helping his people in other ways as well—Ibrahim has 19 bullet wounds to show for his various efforts. (As Rolling Stone’s David Fricke pointed out, “that’s 10 more than 50 Cent.")

Mali held its first democratic, multiparty elections in 1992, and the band has put away the guns in favor of garnering attention for plight of the Touareg people through the far-reaching power of music.

The band’s sound combines a lot of elements. The guitars loop squirrelly English rock riffs, sliding blues lines or thin, clanging reggae strokes over elusive rhythms that evoke Indian music played on African percussion. There’s even a rap tune on its latest release Amassakoul, “Arawan,” with lyrics that translate: “Nobody cares about the people of the desert who are suffering from thirst.”

The immediacy of guitar-driven rock, and its capacity to illicit emotional response, combines well with the lonely voice of a Touareg tradition fighting for its place in the modern world. Tinariwen’s music derives its power and popularity from this well-suited marriage, and considering the long road the band has traveled to get to Chico, it’s safe to say that Tinariwen won’t waste its chance to put on a big show that takes advantage of this power.