Political music seems to be a rarity these days. The '60s addressed civil rights and Vietnam, and the '80s perfected diatribes against Reagan and nukes, but it's been a while since any major band raged against the machine. Subversion seems to have disappeared beyond the technological paranoia and environmental apocalyptism fostered by the entertainment industry.
But it's very different in parts of the world where history, politics and culture are intertwined.
One of the finest examples is African band Tinariwen, whose poignant music has enraptured Western ears. The members are Tuaregs (self-referentially, Kel Tamasheq), the desert-dwelling offshoot of Berbers settled in North Africa since before recorded time. These nomads agitated for autonomy against the Mali government in a series of rebellions, beginning with the 1963 uprising when Tinariwen founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib witnessed his father's execution. He formed a group in Tamanrasset, Algeria, where townspeople dubbed his friends "Kel Tinariwen" (Desert People).
Tinariwen formalized in the military camps of Libya, where Tuareg fighters were recruited to further Moammar Gadhafi's territorial aims.
Emboldened by training, Mr. Alhabib and fellow Tinariwen members joined the 1990 Tuareg rebellion against Mali. Touring the Sahara and freely distributing cassettes, they were discovered in the capital of Bamako by the manager of a French ensemble.
Since then, the annual Festival Au Desert in northern Mali and the release of its first official CD in 2001, "Radio Tisdas Sessions," spread its name worldwide. The group has since completed five more albums: three for Germany's World Village and two for U.S. label Anti- (diverse sister of punk indie Epitaph). Last year's "Tassili" (with guest spots from Wilco's Nels Cline and TV On the Radio's Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe) won it a world music Grammy, and the band made the rounds of major rock fests from Glastonbury to Coachella. Among fans are such rock giants as Robert Plant, Carlos Santana, Bono and Brian Eno.
Tinariwen will perform in the entrance space of The Andy Warhol Museum at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Perhaps the main reason that Tinariwen inspires such fervor is its genuinely exotic appearance: freedom-fighting desert nomads looking like real-life Tusken Raiders and playing a mysteriously hypnotic version of the blues ("assouf" in Tamasheq). Its members are also rooted in global news: the Tuaregs rebelled against Mali again in 2012 by deploying equipment they smuggled southward during Gadhafi's demise and declared an independent state in the northern half of Mali (which includes fabled city Timbuktu) called Azawad.
It was an exciting development, but the insurgency was usurped by al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic extremists Ansar Dine, who made death threats against assouf ("We do not want Satan's music. In its place will be Quranic verses. Sharia demands this"), and Tinariwen fled back to Algeria. The French military conducted "Operation Serval" to drive Islamists out, but the area is still extremely unstable, plagued by murderous thugs and bereft of basic services. "There is no administration, no banks, no food, no gas," explains bassist Eyadou Ag Leche.
So Tinariwen looks to the West for sustenance. Unlike its albums recorded in Africa, the latest release "Emmaar" ("[Tamasheq for] what you can feel if you come close to a fire, both pleasant and dangerous") was created in Joshua Tree, homeland of desert stoner-rock (Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age). Members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Zwan and a Nashville-based fiddler braved dusty roads to jam on songs played by two generations of Tinariwen members -- Mr. Ag Leche is part of a younger '90s bunch along with guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid and percussionist Said Ag Ayad.
Although recorded in the Mojave, "Emmaar" reflects the concerns of Saharan existence. "Toumast Tincha" expresses how the Tuaregs have been "sold out" by everyone, "Timadrit in Sahara" praises the struggle ("we've learned to use other weapons than those our ancestors bequeathed us"), and "Aghregh Medin" reveals internal bickering ("opinions battle each other and I no longer believe in unity"). Other tracks celebrate the windswept nature of the members' culture, from camels, tents and indigo turbans to the tinde -- a drum played by women who lead a call-and-response celebration of poetry and music. There's even a bit of romance:
"Chaghaybou" is a woman who claims the love of a man with all of her heart.
Despite the slicker presentation, the aim is still quite traditional -- the group is depicted in white or blue turbans ("it brings a bit of the desert to the audiences"), and the songs are titled with the ancient Phoenician-derived Tifinagh alphabet, recently reintroduced due to the revival of Berber sentiment across North Africa. "Berbers support our music because we speak the same language," Mr. Ag Leche explains.
"Culture influences politics, so the fact of preserving traditions is a kind of pacified political action. We are very proud of Tifinagh -- it's important to be understood by our people but also to share it with the world."
Diffusing outward is an entire movement of desert-blues/assouf bands from Mali, Niger and Western Sahara riding on Tinariwen's success: Etran Finatawa, Terakaft, Group Doueh and Tamikrest have all toured the U.S., and Tuareg guitarist Bombino is championed by Nonesuch Records and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
"It's great to see artists from home getting known internationally, Bombino being one of them," says Mr. Ag Leche.
"There are many different musical traditions in Africa evolving with today's sound."
Meanwhile, Ibrahim, Eyadou and their comrades are making sure their message isn't lost in the whirlwind of attention. "We really need to express both the current political situation and our ancestral culture, which is about Tamasheq poetry. It's been decades that our people have been suffering. It's time for a change."
Manny Theiner is a freelance writer.