Their backstory has been called “the most compelling of any band” — a stranger-than-fiction saga involving a guitar made from a tin can and stick; a following built by whispered word-of-mouth, and an alliance formed in the refugee camps and military bases of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya.
There are bands who have marketed themselves as “underground” — and then there’s the Grammy winning phenomenon known as Tinariwen; popular music played by men who literally fought a revolution, when they weren’t busy entertaining at parties, weddings and festivals.
Founded in the 1980s by singer, guitarist and soldier Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the multi-generational collective known as Tinariwen emerged from the Saharan sands to give voice to the nomadic Tuareg people of Mali and other North African nations — a million-strong population whose rich cultural history transcends the barren landscape of the middle and western tinariwen (meaning “the deserts,” as the Tuareg consider the Sahara to be many neighboring lands).
On the evening of Sunday, October 21, Ag Alhabib and the 2012 edition of Tinariwen make their maiden voyage to the West Long Branch campus of Monmouth University — the scene earlier this year for the multi-media celebration of modern Islamic arts known as Caravanserai. The performance by the eight-piece touring band takes place on the stage of the Pollak Theatre, a place that’s brought the best in ethnic and world music — from the historically authentic to the hippest amalgams — to the doorstep of the New Jersey community.
Mixing diverse regional ethnic forms with Western pop influences; incorporating traditional instruments within an electrified wall of sound, Tinariwen came together when Ag Alhabib (who witnessed the execution of his father during a 1960s Tuareg uprising) met longtime guitarist Abdallah Ag Alhousseni and other young Libyan-trained exiles, in the camps operated by the leaders of the Tuareg rebel forces.
With no hope of exposure through government-sanctioned channels, the band’s music circulated, caravanserai-style, within an underground network of cassette trading — while its members became messengers and de facto ambassadors for their people, during a time when movement and communications were cut off to large segments of the Tuareg population.
Following the regional peace accords of the early 1990s, the men of Tinariwen laid down their weapons, and took up their calling as spokespeople for a generation to whom the old ways were fast dissolving in an era of drought, forced exile and political turmoil. The release of their first real album in 2001 — coupled with an enthusiastic reception at several European music festivals — fueled a groundswell of international recognition that led to collaborations with Carlos Santana, and the band TV on the Radio (with whom Tinariwen members appeared on The Colbert Report last year).
While the image of the guns-and-guitars warriors persists, today’s edition of the ever-evolving Tinariwen incorporates a new, younger generation of men and women — and it’s that millennial group who, curiously enough, recorded the largely acoustic and heavily traditional 2011 album Tassili in the Algerian desert; a makeshift project that earned Tinariwen honors as Best World Music Album at the 54th Grammy Awards.
To purchase tickets, or for additional information on the new Performing Arts season, please contact the Monmouth University Performing Arts Box Office at 732-263-6889, or online at www.monmouth.edu/arts. To schedule an interview, please contact Eileen Chapman at 732-571-3512.