Tinariwen’s journey leads them to hipster status

Many bands have come from humble origins, but few can match the scope of Tinariwen’s journey.

The legendary group, who’s performing Oct. 23 at the State Theatre, hails from the rock hotbed of northern Mali in the Saharan Desert.

Belonging to the Tuareg people, members formed the band in Libyan refugee camps in 1979. Founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib had already survived hardship as a child, having seen his father, a Taureg rebel, executed during a 1963 uprising.

After receiving military training from then-Libyan ruler Moammar al-Gaddafi, band members returned to Mali in the late 1980s and fought as rebels in a civil uprising. When peace came in 1991, they swapped their guns for guitars for good, playing gigs in Tuareg communities before breaking into the world music scene 11 years ago and rising to international fame.

Fans include Carlos Santanta, Robert Plant, Bono, Henry Rollins, Brian Eno and Thom Yorke, of Radiohead. The band also has opened for the Rolling Stones.

Now, Tinariwen — the name means “deserts” in the Tamashek language — is bringing to State College its popular, driving blend of traditional Tuareg music known as “assouf,” West African music, Berber music from northern Algeria and other regional styles.

Josh Ferko, who owns the Stax of Trax record shop in Webster's Bookstore Cafe, helped book the band as a State Theatre concert committee member. He fell in love with the group in New York nine years ago at its first American performance, and has been to three concerts since.

Tinariwen’s music, Ferko said, can be “totally, joyfully uplifting,” featuring “deep, mesmerizing grooves, with just incredible vocals.”

“It’s deeply spiritual, I feel, and almost meditative, but also just intense,” he said. “It just takes you away.”

Tinariwen’s acoustic and electric guitars, backed by a bass and percussion from a calabash drum, call to mind American blues, particularly from Mississippi, though band members have said they never heard actual blues music until they started traveling in 2001. Besides Tuareg music, band members have drawn from Malian, Egyptian and Moroccan pop, as well as such western musicians as Dire Straits, Santana, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan.

State Theatre Executive Director Richard Biever said Tinariwen’s appearance is part of the theater’s effort to expand its programming this season with a world music series. The theater’s size is perfect for a group like Tinariwen, he said.

“We just thought this is exactly what the State Theatre should be doing,” Biever said.

Ferko urged local music lovers to experience Tinariwen’s unique sound for themselves.

“Every time I’ve come out from seeing them, I’m floating,” he said. “Your soul is just filled with incredible joy.”