Tinariwen's press photos and album covers almost invariably feature the band standing stoic and solemn-faced in the never-ending horizon of a desertscape, the wind whipping hair and robes, guitars and drums slung across backs and shoulders that are ready to move at a moment's notice. In other words, it is at once the epitome of the stereotypical rock star pose and a constant gesture to this band's less-familiar origins -- in the Saharan desert, among nomadic tribes and refugee camps of the much-persecuted Tuareg people, against enormous odds. These photos, equal parts Led Zeppelin and Lonely Planet, are slick, well-crafted publicity material, of course. But they also do a pretty damn good job of representing the sound with which this Malian band has made its name -- and entranced the world.
The story is the stuff of legends: Young folks in the Saharan region dig into the blues and blues rock (itself heavily influenced by African and Afro-diasporic music, of course) and pick up guitars (sometimes as an alternative to weapons in this conflict-ridden region) to craft a sound that intertwines Western rock, African traditions and the yearning, mesmerizing infinity of the desert. Tinariwen's been at it for more than 30 years now, and they just keep finding new ways to wrap us up in their meditative, mournful sound, whether they're re-creating a traditional tea-drinking ceremony or jamming with TV on the Radio. Thrill your way through this mix of their best songs, including cuts from their latest album, Emmaar, which was recorded in a different desert -- Joshua Tree -- due to the persecution of musicians in parts of the Saharan region.