Jody Rosen at Slate:
For rockers and rappers of a certain stripe, a hard-bitten back story is an indispensable part of their mystique and a bold-face item in their press releases. What would 50 Cent be without the gun battle that left a bullet shard lodged in his tongue? (Answer: about $50 million poorer.) Of course, there’s hard-bitten and there’s hard-bitten. These self-styled rebels and gangstas would do well to consider the case of Tinariwen, a rock group, of sorts, from the swath of the Sahara that stretches northeast of Timbuktu. Tinariwen is made up of Tuareg, Berber nomads who waged a decades-long separatist struggle against the Malian government that disposed them of their traditional territories. The band was formed in the early 1980s by three teenagers, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Hassan Ag Touhami, and Inteyeden Ag Ableline, living in exile in southern Algeria. The musicians were typical of the Tuareg youth of their generation—adrift and nearly destitute, hungry for self-determination and revenge—and they poured their emotions into confessional songs sung in Tamashek and French, and laced with rough-hewn guitar work. Eventually, the three friends found themselves in Muammar Qaddafi’s’s Tuareg training camps in Libya, and then back in Mali, fighting in a brief, bloody guerilla war. They were rock ‘n’ roll rebels whose rebellion, for once, wasn’t just metaphorical.
A lesser band could build a following on the strength of that colorful past alone. But Tinariwen, now featuring eight members, happens to make extraordinary music. The songs are modal vamps, with gruff call-and-response vocals, congas, handclaps, and layered guitar riffs, which build to trancelike fugues.
Youtube samples here.