Desert music and desert rock are both terms that have floated around the margins of American pop culture for a while. Avant-garde composer Steve Reich released an album called The Desert Music in 1983, and acolytes of 1990s stoner metal and psychedelic rock know desert rock as shorthand for the Palm Desert, Calif. scene that birthed Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age. Tinariwen, a native Malian band, use “desert” when discussing their own music, too, but in a way that’s much more earnest, intense and frequent than any American counterpart. “[The] desert is living in us,” Tinariwen bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, 36, says by email, in answers translated from French by Marion Chapdelaine. “It’s part of us everywhere we go, and part of our own nostalgia that we called ‘assouf,’ [that] we feel everywhere we are.”
Referencing the desert—both literally and symbolically—is the most fundamental aspect of Tinariwen’s aesthetic. “Tinariwen” itself means “people of the desert” in Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg people, a nomadic population scattered throughout Africa. (Related aside: “assouf” is also a Tamasheq word.)
On an instrumental level, the group’s calling card is a smoky, decisively delivered guitar-based sound that’s rooted in traditional African and Middle Eastern music, all with smears of psych rock, blues rock and drone music blended in. Hearing “the desert” in Tinariwen’s music happens easily. This is partially due to the power of suggestion, of course, but this material really does feel bright and arid. “We are mostly influenced by traditional Tuareg music, like the Tende—music and rhythms inspired by the camels’ dance—as well as the singing of women [in] Tuareg music,” Ag Leche, who joined the outfit 15 years ago, elaborates. “Some of us—the younger generation—do listen to ‘70s American rock: Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, also reggae. Others are into American blues and country.”
The band—more a collective, really, what with all of its lineup tweaks—originated in 1979 when a handful of Tuareg musicians started to play together in and around the Algerian city of Tamanrasset. As the project has grown across generations (front man Ibrahim Ag Alhabib played at Ag Leche’s baptism), Tinariwen’s instrumental repertoire includes the electric and acoustic guitars, the bass and African percussion instruments like the djembe and the calabash (a modified dried gourd). For performances, Tinariwen don traditional Tuareg dress so, as Ag Leche says, to “bring some of the desert with us and to the audiences.”
There’s a heavy sociopolitical component at play, too. There’s not enough room here to dive into the nitty-gritty of African politics, but suffice it to say, Tinariwen’s personnel largely live in exile. Their songs, which are sung in Tamasheq, assess both broad, easily identifiable subjects—poetry, love, nature—while also tackling more specific subjects: the integration of Tuareg fighters into the Malian army, a notable 1990s Tuareg uprising, life in the desert and the general independence of the Tuareg people. When not on tour, members are scattered around Algeria (where Ag Leche resides), northern Mali, Niger and Mauritania.
In Mali, music has repeatedly been a medium under conflict—Islamic militants emphasized a music ban in the country in 2012—so Tinariwen have been lucky to gain a substantial international following after a decade-plus of serious touring. The Western world has taken a particular shine to them. Tinariwen have shared stages with Carlos Santana and Bono. Major media organizations—The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian—have covered them. In 2005, the group won a BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music; some seven years later, they won a Grammy for Best World Music Album for 2011’s Tassili. Stateside, they’re signed to Anti- Records, Epitaph’s esteemed sister label. Ag Leche is grateful for all the affection, but can’t nail down a specific source for this interest. “We are not particularly hoping to reach English-speaking countries. We are hoping to reach any other countries! It’s fabulous to get attention by all these people to our music and our community,” he says. “It is great, especially for our people, that the world gets interested about the Tuareg situation.”
Released in February, Emmaar marks the first time Tinariwen have recorded in America and made an album far from their native terrain. (The home front’s political situation was too unsafe to pull off a project like that.) The United States is a vast country that offers all manner of topography and environments, so Tinariwen could have spent time in any number of places. But, in a move that should surprise no one, they opted to record their sixth album in Joshua Tree, Calif., an area located in—wait for it—the Mojave Desert. “[The desert is] an environment that is essential for us,” Ag Leche says. “We need to feel the natural elements of it: the sand, the silence, the air, the wind, the rocks, the freedom feeling.”
Fri., March 21, 8pm. $22.50-$25. 1412 Chestnut St. 215.893.1999. princemusictheater.org