This month, Malian desert blues outfit Tinariwen blazes a path through Asia, its most extensive trek in this part of the world.

The guitar-slinging band already sold out the Royal Opera House in Mumbai, India, on Nov 8, while concert and festival dates in China, Hong Kong, and Tokyo await next week.

Tinariwen is also set to play KL Live on Nov 13, its first visit to the capital and only South-East Asian stop.

The show, presented by culture and arts organisation Pusaka and Selangor Youth Community, will be supported by Klang Valley-based Chinna Rasa Urumee Melam Masana Kali temple drummers. This is no ordinary concert pairing.

The concert line-up is as bold and interesting as it can get, proving diversity and edginess can be derived from unlikely sources.

Pusaka is no stranger when it comes to bridging traditional culture and music in its programming. On the international front, it has introduced Malaysians to names like Azerbaijani mugham singer Alim Qasimov and Pakistan-based Mehr and Sher Ali Qawwali Ensemble; both played here in 2015.

However, Tinariwen looks to be Pusaka’s most rock ’n’ roll concert booking, a group well capable of lifting the roof off KL Live.

In frizzy-haired founder member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Tinariwen has an enigmatic and explosive stage presence.

In real life, Ibrahim – a sort of Bob Marley of the Sahara – has an incredible backstory that epitomises the steely soul and spirit of the Tuareg people (desert nomads) in times of conflict and turmoil.

The desert blues, part stinging, part mournful, played by Tinariwen today didn’t emerge from the most peaceful of settings.

Long before Ibrahim became a professional musician, he was a refugee child forced to flee his home in Mali after his father was executed in the 1963 uprising. Ibrahim and his family fled to Algeria, seeking a new life.

The Tuareg tribe, in brief, is an indigenous people who speak their own language, and whose territory stretches over six countries in North Africa.

In the late 1970s, the displaced Ibrahim found a defiant voice and was a pivotal figure in spreading the rebel music of the Tuaregs through Tinariwen, which has its roots in nomadic settlements and military camps in the Sahara and Libya.

Outside music, Tinariwen, made up mostly of radicalised Tuareg nomads, waged a decades-long separatist struggle against the Malian government that dispossessed them of their traditional territories. The band was formed by three young men – Ibrahim, Hassan Ag Touhami and Inteyeden Ag Ableline – living in exile in southern Algeria.

It was in those camps that Tinariwen warmed up the desert blues, eventually forging a reputation too big even for the Sahara to handle.

Despite the Mali group’s fame, though, it is still focused on spreading the word about the plight of the nomadic Tuareg tribe. The political turmoil in Northern Mali persists, and some Tinariwen members now live in exile in Tamanrasset in Algeria while others are in Mali.

However, from being camel-riding freedom fighters, Tinariwen is now revered as a North African music legend.

Ibrahim, in his late 50s, has come a long way from making homemade guitars from empty gasoline cans, pieces of wood and rusty wire.

There has been no shortage of praise for Tinariwen’s music and indomitable spirit.

Tinariwen

Tinariwen’s breakthrough album Amassakoul from 2004.

It is one of Mali’s most successful musical exports in the last two decades, and the band’s legacy is secure with a string of acclaimed albums, including the breakthrough The Radio Tisdas Sessions (2001) and Amassakou (2004).

Tinariwen, if anything, has grown in stature in the international music scene, breaking out of the Womad and Montreaux Jazz Festival circuit and making its presence felt at mainstream festivals like Glastonbury in England and Coachella in California.

These days, it is arguably the most recognisable and influential Tuareg collective around.

Its latest album, Elwan, released earlier this year, is already making its rounds on many year-end lists, and next Monday, the crowd in KL can finally soak in the band’s music, past and present.

Back in 2007, British producer/guitarist Justin Adams aptly described Tinariwen as “The Velvets? Sonic Youth? Howling Wolf in maximum fuzz mode? All of the above, but African, always African.” He penned those liner notes in the band’s Aman Iman album, which he produced.

On every count, Adams got the “African authentic” part right. Perhaps the classic Vox DA5, a desert amp that runs on batteries, might be missing these days. However, let’s leave it to Tinariwen to unleash some updated firepower on stage.


Tinariwen plays KL Live, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, on Nov 13. The show starts 8pm. Tickets are RM120 (standing) and RM160 (seated). Visit: ticketpro.com.my. For VIP tickets (RM250), email: info@senipusaka.com or call 03-7732 1407.