In the vast reaches of the southwestern Sahara Desert, where Algeria dips down and meets Mali and Niger, the Tuareg people continue a centuries-long struggle for self-determination. Over the ages, the wily desert nomads have held their own against powerful empires and ideologies, but now their cultural survival is partly tied to Mali's Tinariwen, a rock band that is bringing the Tuaregs' message to a global audience.
In August, the band opened a series of concerts for the Rolling Stones in Dublin, while high-profile supporters such as Carlos Santana, Robert Plant, Bonnie Raitt, and jazz guitarist Leni Stern journey to northeastern Mali to participate in the Festival in the Desert, an annual Tuareg cultural gathering that has become a key intersection for musicians from Africa, Europe, and the United States.
As part of a US tour marking the release of the band's third album, "Aman Iman" (Water Is Life), a slimmed-down version of Tinariwen performs tomorrow at the Museum of Fine Arts. With its mesmerizing call-and-response vocals driven by lean, bluesy electric guitars, and the hollow clip-clop of the calabash, a gourd percussion instrument, Tinariwen is showcasing a new generation of Tuareg musicians who are eager to shoulder the band's oversize role as representatives of their people.
"The responsibility is huge," says 28-year-old electric bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, speaking in French through an interpreter before a concert in San Francisco. "Tinariwen today are like ambassadors of Tuaregs worldwide. Tuareg children watch them, know everything they do, where they've been, what they've played, and what they've done.
"Ever since I was born, I was aware of the implications of Tinariwen," he continues. "I grew up with this music. As a kid I would follow them around. I played guitar, and at a certain point the idea just came to me to start playing electric bass. When they started performing outside of Mali in 2001, they chose a few young Tuaregs who were involved in their music to work with them. That's how I started touring with them."
While previous American tours have featured at least seven members of the sprawling Tuareg institution, for this tour Tinariwen's two female vocalists and charismatic guitarist and songwriter Ibrahim Ag Alhabib aren't available, leaving a five-piece combo led by guitarist and vocalist Alhassane Ag Touhami, a founding member known as the Lion of the Desert for his role in the early 1990s Tuareg insurgency against Mali's government.
For many centuries the Tuaregs were the masters of the Sahara who played a vital economic and cultural role linking West and North Africa. When the great empires of Mali arose in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Tuaregs, or Kel Tamashek as they call themselves, helped make Timbuktu a thriving university town, where some of the world's most advanced scholars wrote treatises on mathematics, physics, medicine, and Sufi-inspired Islamic spirituality.
Related to North Africa's indigenous Amazigh (or Berber) peoples, the Tuareg resisted French colonialism into the late 19th century, earning a reputation as fierce and cunning desert warriors. With the end of French colonial rule in the 1960s, Tuareg society found itself divided among the newly independent nations. The rebellion against Mali's military government in the early '90s dispersed the Tuareg further, leaving many exiled in refugee camps in Mauritania, Algeria, and Burkino Faso.
And now the rise of militant Islam poses a fresh threat to Tuareg society, as the US government supports and arms Mali's and Niger's military to prevent the spread of Al Qaeda in the Sahara.
"They are getting caught in this war on terror," says Thomas K. Seligman, director of Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center and co-editor of "The Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World." "I've known a lot of the leadership for many years, and they are absolutely opposed to fundamentalist Islam and Al Qaeda. The Tuareg are concerned about self-determination and maintaining values they think are important. As a minority population, they're doing pretty well at that, but it's fragile and always being challenged."
Tinariwen is a prime example of the resiliency of the Tuareg. The band first took shape in a military camp in the mid-'80s in Libya, where many Tuaregs found refuge after a devastating drought almost wiped out the age-old desert way of life, killing off camels and goats and forcing most Tuaregs to settle in cities. Exposed to the music of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and various Moroccan rock bands, Ag Alhabib and Ag Touhami started writing nostalgia-laced songs full of longing for the desert and the communal lifestyle it requires.
"We were entranced by that sound," Ag Alhabib said in a conversation last year. "We decided to use the money we'd saved to buy these instruments and incorporate those influences into our sound, which enamored the people of the camp. We've been together ever since."