A guitar band from Mali called Tinariwen is famous worldwide. The group's fans and collaborators have included Robert Plant, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Bono of U2 and Nels Cline of Wilco. The band has fought extremism in their home country of Mali, and been victims themselves. But ahead of a September show in Winston-Salem, N.C., social media commenters are leveling violent, racist attacks against the musicians.
A refresher on Tinariwen: This a group of Tuareg musicians from the north of Mali. The members have been hailed as guitar gods, playing rolling melodic lines and loping rhythms that evoke the desert sands of the Sahara — the band's native home. The band's name literally means "deserts" in their language, Tamasheq.
The first time I saw them play was in Mali, back when it was a safer country than it is today — it was a life-transforming experience. In January 2003, I was lucky enough to travel to see them play at the Festival in the Desert, at a Saharan oasis called Essakane — that's about 40 miles outside of Timbuktu, to give you a sense of its remoteness. To get there, we drove, off-road, in ramshackle Toyota Land Cruisers over constantly shifting sands.
The stage for the three-day event was set up amidst the desert dunes; we slept in simple tents as Tuareg nomads pitched their tents and camels nearby. (The festival, which was founded in 2001, was built upon a traditional Tuareg festival — a time for nomadic Tuareg to get together, make community decisions, race camels, make music, recite poetry and dance.) There were a few dozen foreigners — Brits, Europeans and Americans, like myself — among hundreds of Tuaregs and their camels.
The hope for a larger Festival in the Desert was that it could serve as an economic engine and encourage cultural tourism to northern Mali, a region that has often struggled, and to show cultural unity among Mali's richly diverse peoples, in the years after the country suffered terrible and bloody conflict in the 1990s. To that end, the organizers invited some incredible Malian musicians who weren't Tuareg to perform — artists like Ali Farka Touré and Oumou Sangare — along with Robert Plant. The 2003 Festival in the Desert became legendary — and it spurred Tinariwen to worldwide success.
But the Festival in the Desert didn't last. The political situation in Mali grew more precarious, and by 2012, Islamist extremists — many of them foreigners — fanned out across northern Mali, in hopes of gaining control. Musicians became a prime target. The Festival in the Desert went into exile, and transformed by necessity into an international touring collective.
One of Tinariwen's own members, the vocalist Intidao (born Abdallah Ag Lamida), was kidnapped by one of those extremist groups, Ansar Dine, in early 2013. Fortunately, he was released. But like many musicians from Mali, Tinariwen has rebuked fundamentalism, and they persevered largely by recording and touring extensively abroad.
Fast-forward to this week. The band is touring the U.S. in September and October to support a new album. A club in Winston-Salem, called The Ramkat booked a show with them for Sept. 17. The venue's owners put up an ad on Facebook for the show and in response, they started getting a number of racist, vitriolic comments and even violent threats against Tinariwen. (The situation was amplified by the local alternative newspaper, the Triad City Beat, which posted a report on July 19.)
Andy Tennille, one of The Ramkat's owners, told NPR on Tuesday that he found the comments "highly disturbing, hateful, and sad — very sad."
He continued: "If any of these commenters had done any sort of homework on the band, the Tuareg people or their history, they'd find that the band and the Tuareg people have been marginalized their entire lives — and that Tinariwen themselves have stood up to some of these kind of hateful and and racist forces in North[western] Africa. It's incredibly disappointing, and then probably the most disappointing thing of all is the fact that we're talking about these misguided commenters, and what we're not talking about is what an incredible band Tinariwen is."
Tennille says that he and the other owners have been heartened by positive comments and ticket purchases, however, in the aftermath of the waves of racist and xenophobic comments. Even so, they're planning to increase security measures on the night of Tinariwen's show.
Previous audio and Web versions of this story misstated the name of one of The Ramkat's owners. His name is Andy Tennille, not Andy Neville.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A guitar band called Tinariwen is famous worldwide.
(SOUNDBITE OF TINARIWEN'S "TENERE TAQQAL")
SHAPIRO: Their fans and collaborators have included Robert Plant, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Bono of U2. They have fought extremism in their home country of Mali and been victims themselves. Now ahead of a show in Winston-Salem, N.C., commenters on social media are leveling violent, racist attacks against the musicians. Joining us to discuss the situation is NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas.
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: I know you've followed this band for years. Tell us more about them.
TSIOULCAS: They're a group of nomadic Tuareg musicians from the northern end of Mali in the Sahara Desert. And they've been hailed as guitar gods. And here they are playing with Nels Cline of the band Wilco.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IMIDIWAN MA TENNAM")
TINARIWEN: (Singing in foreign language).
SHAPIRO: Tell us more about what we're hearing here.
TSIOULCAS: Well, you can hear all those wonderful rolling guitars. You can hear how they're fusing electric guitars with traditional rhythms and aesthetics.
(SOUNDBITE OF TINARIWEN SONG, "IMIDIWAN MA TENNAM")
TSIOULCAS: The band's name literally means deserts in their language, Tamashek. And you get that desert feeling in all their work.
SHAPIRO: And the first time you saw them was in their home country of Mali, back when it was a safer country than it is today. What was that like?
TSIOULCAS: Yes. It was a life-transforming experience. In 2003, I was lucky enough to travel to see them in the Sahara at an oasis about 40 miles outside of Timbuktu, which gives you a sense of how remote it was. And this was the performance that really catapulted them to worldwide attention.
(SOUNDBITE OF TINARIWEN SONG, "ALDACHAN MANIN")
TSIOULCAS: And ever since, they've been touring the world. And their next U.S. leg is this fall.
SHAPIRO: People who've been following the news from Mali will know that Islamist extremism has been a huge problem there. And musicians have been a target. So how did that affect this band Tinariwen?
TSIOULCAS: Right. Back in 2012, 2013, Islamist groups in northern Mali really tried to take over the region and also made musicians one of their prime targets. And, in fact, one of the band's own members, one of the vocalists for Tinariwen, was kidnapped in early 2013.
SHAPIRO: What happened to him?
TSIOULCAS: Intidao, the name of this vocalist, was, thankfully, released a short time later. But it - of course, it's had an enormous impact on the band. And many of the group's lyrics actively rebuke fundamentalism.
SHAPIRO: So you have this group that is singing against fundamentalism, that has been kidnapped by Islamist extremists. And then they're scheduled to play a gig in Winston-Salem, N.C., in September. And what happens?
TSIOULCAS: So the club, which is called The Ramkat, put up a social media ad on Facebook advertising the show. And these hateful, racist, inciting comments started rolling in. And a few days ago, a local weekly alternative paper, the Triad City Beat, wrote about the situation. And earlier today, I talked to one of the owners of the club. His name is Andy Tennille. And here's what he had to say.
ANDY TENNILLE: If any of these commenters had done any sort of homework, they'd find that the band and the Tuareg people have been marginalized their entire lives. And Tinariwen themselves have stood up to some of these kind of hateful and racist forces in North Africa. And probably the most disappointing thing of all is we're talking about these misguided commenters, and what we're not talking about is what an incredible band Tinariwen is.
SHAPIRO: And is the show going to go on?
TSIOULCAS: Yes. And the club owners say that after all these hateful comments, they've been really heartened to see a lot of positive comments and ticket purchases as well. So Tinariwen is planning to play at The Ramkat on September 17. And Andy Tennille, the club owner, says that they're going to increase security measures around that show.
SHAPIRO: And we should let listeners know Tinariwen is on a U.S. tour and will be playing a lot of different cities through September and October. That's NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas.
Thanks so much.
TSIOULCAS: Thanks for having me, Ari.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In earlier audio and web versions of this report, Andy Tennille was mistakenly referred to as Andy Neville.]
(SOUNDBITE OF TINARIWEN SONG, "TIWAYYEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.