This is one case where you are better off watching all the extras before you get to the main feature. To get the full impact of this rocking little band from the north of Africa, you need to know exactly where they're coming from, which makes the bonus mini-documentaries and interview footage essential.
Tinariwen and their sternly charismatic leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib are inseparable from the Tuareg people from which they come, a group of nomads with an ancient culture whose territory crosses the borders of Algeria, Mali, and Niger as they cling fiercely to their own independent identity. The damage left behind by colonialism is clear: when the territory called "French West Africa" was carved into various independent nations, the borders were drawn with little or no regard for the ancestral lands of all the different ethnic groups of the region. (And this is no isolated case: the nation called "Iraq" was created in a similar fashion by England drawing arbitrary lines on a map, leaving the Kurds in a similar position to the Tuaregs, for instance.) So the French leave, and an oddly-shaped nation called "Mali" is established, stretching from the Niger River where the ancient "Mali Empire" was centered, clear up to a broad swath of the Sahara, where the Tuareg population lives.
So the question comes up: what is a nation? What is a national identity? Is it ethnicity? Is it a shared philosophy? Is it an alliance between peoples for mutual advancement and benefit? Or is it just a piece of real estate to be ruled by the strongest strongman who can hold it? Sorry, folks, you're on your own and good luck answering those questions; your old European conquerors have washed their hands of you. Here, have some foreign aid. Hope it gets to the right places. (And thanks for the natural resources, we'll be sure the general gets his payment.) Oh, I see that corruption and war are plaguing your people. Well, it must be proof of your innate primitive depravity. Surely we, your former Great White Fathers, couldn't have had anything to do with this mess, could we? And so it goes, the whole sordid story of third world struggle. It's a big subject, worth more thought and debate than this little blog post can contain by itself...
The young displaced Tuaregs that grew up to form Tinariwen, while directly affected by this state of affairs, grew up with more immediate concerns. Driven from his home after his father was assassinated by the Malian army in 1963, Ibrahim eventually found himself on his own doing odd jobs and trying to survive in Algeria, ultimately, along with a whole generation of stateless, exiled young Tuaregs like him, going to Libya for military training as part of Moammar Khadafy's campaign to support the Tuareg insurrection in Mali. Ah yes, Khadafy. Benevolent supporter of liberation struggles or petty imperialist puppet-master in his own right? You decide.
It would all be just another story of the endless cycle of ethnic wars in the third world, if not for Ibrahim's chance encounter with an Arab musician in Algeria who teaches him guitar, eventually selling him his instrument. The young guerilla and his comrades spend their downtime during the civil war brewing tea in the desert while they jam and write new songs that build on their traditional music with lyrics that address their own experience and express the feelings and views of their community. Something powerful grows out of these little sessions: a loose-knit band evolves, recording their own low-fi cassettes that spread like wildfire among the Tuareg people, capturing and feeding their spirits and communicating them to others. After the conflict is resolved, the music lives on. Tinariwen's guitars have an impact that reaches farther than their guns ever did. Eventually an English record producer named Justin Adams makes the trek out to the desert to put together their first studio recording, and the band becomes an international cult sensation.
The music itself is hypnotic and thrilling, slightly reminiscent of the bluesy droning sounds of Ali Farka Toure, only with a strong Berber influence that shows in the more Arabic-flavored melody lines. A whole fleet of electric guitars, a marvelously extroverted left-handed bassist, and one phenomenal hand drummer holding down the beat. On most songs, two or three band members (including a spry old man and a beatific woman) clap hands, sing backups, and break into spontaneous dances when they are moved to do so.
Various members take turns singing and playing lead guitar, but every time Ibrahim steps forward, the charisma level rises. His voice is just that much more deep and magnetic, and his guitar is just that much more biting. He comes across not as a domineering boss, but as first among equals, the guy with the X factor that everyone else looks up to. And with his wild mane of hair and his wry, haunted expression that tells you he's seen things you don't even want to ask him about, he cannot help but be the focal point. Yet he also has an air of quiet, centered dignity, like a warrior who has found a better way to defend and represent his community. Now when people hear the word "Tuareg", instead of thinking of some marginal group of oppressed desert rebels (or going "huh"?), thousands more of them will think of a band with a percolating, prickly groove that they can't get out of their heads. And while that won't solve the problems of the world by itself, it's a step in the right direction towards reveling in the amazing things human beings in faraway corners of the world can do. Once insurgents, Tinariwen are now diplomats. Buy their records and make them some money.