As the U.S. is about to embark upon another arrogant, ignorant strafing of another country about which we know nothing, once again the music of the Arabic and Muslim world takes on a darkly poignant tone. In the case of Tinariwen -- a group of guitar-wielding rebels from Mali -- the poignancy is that much stronger. Long vilified in their southern Sahara region as nomadic ne'er do wells, the Kel Tamashek have been victims of round after round of ethnic cleansing and mass murder. Tinariwen is a loose-knit group of Kel Tamashek musicians who realized that their decades of armed rebellion were getting them nowhere but killed. Inspired by Western rebel music like Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, they decided nearly 20 years ago that perhaps guitars might be more effective as weapons in spreading the word of their plight. Despite being banned for a time in Mali and Algeria, the group sought to become the musical voice of their cause, travelling around west Africa and the world, performing for anyone who would hear them.
Combining stark, bluesy guitar passages and soulful vocals with a faint undercurrent of "traditional" music, Tinariwen has struck upon a truly remarkable sound: one that is simultaneously familiar and absolutely foreign. Recorded at night at a Malian radio station (electricity rations meant that power was only available between 7 p.m. and midnight), "The Radio Tisdas Sessions" chronicles the latest maturity of that sound. With muted group choruses, delicate background percussion and wily, unpredictable guitar lines that evoke other Malian musicians like Ali Farka Toure, it's an entirely subdued affair, but one that's brimming with its own inner fire.
Although their freedom fighting continues unabated and "The Festival of the Desert" -- held over the past three years near Timbuktu -- has brought together Tamashek and their oppressors for a musical fete, the group still faces widespread discrimination. So whether Tinariwen has been completely successful in their political motives is debatable. That Tinariwen has succeeded in creating an astonishing new musical sound is without question.