This evening, a fascinating band of musicians descends on the Decatur Street Club, which is a long way from their home in the sands of the Sahara Desert in northern Mali.
Tinariwen plays a style of music that American listeners often associate with the blues. Their sound has a trance-like component that recalls John Lee Hooker’s one-chord meditations. But they rock. Hard.
The musicians are members of the Tuareg ethnic group. They are nomads who have made their home in the desert for thousands of years. Though the band is fully electrified and their music is now guitar-driven, the songs are rooted in the hypnotic melodies of their ancient forefathers that were originally played by shepherds on one-stringed instruments and simple flutes.
The group’s history parallels that of another band of African musicians, Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars. The Tuaregs have been oppressed throughout their long history by various other more dominant ethnic groups and some of the revolving cast of musicians in Tinariwen were rebel fighters or spent years as refugees in exile.
Tinariwen is a collective. When they first came to the attention of the international arts community in the late 1990s, the musicians were all part of the generation of that revolted against the Malian government. Now the group also includes younger musicians that were never members of the military or militia forces.
They have played hundreds of concerts across the world and have appeared at major festivals including the taste-making Coachella Festival, which coincidentally takes place in the desert in California. Their shows are high-energy affairs with dancing crowds.