The awesome group of hypnotic rockers known as Tinariwen -- from "Kel Tinariwen," or "desert boys" -- dress in traditional costume for performances, have one of the most amazing political and social backstories of any band, and write songs that seek to convey the sorrows, longing, and occasional joys of living in exile. (They'll be performing Sun/21 at the Palace of Fine Arts as part of the SF Jazz Festival.) That backstory story begins:
In 1963, an uprising of the nomadic Tuareg people began in the Adrar des Iforas desert region against the new independent government of Mali. During the revolt, a mason and trader by the name of Alhabib Ag Sidi was executed for aiding the rebels. The army then destroyed his herd of camels, cattle, and goats while his four-year old son Ibrahim watched. Ibrahim and his family travelled into exile in Algeria with his family and their one remaining cow.
It goes on to incorporate a number of rebellions, several diasoporas, Muammar Gaddafi, and founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib's love for American blues.
But there's something even more compelling going on about Tinariwen than any gonzo global-folk narrative, however remarkable, suggests.
These savvy Saharans, whose numbers encompass two generations of musicians (lIbrahim Ag Alhabib will make a rare appearance at the SF date), have a multi-tentacled Web presence that just won't quit, enthusiastically embrace the psychedelic indie-god status bestowed upon them by Pitchfork and the Uncut Music Awards, and aren't afraid to defy exotic expectations by dressing down a bit.
Those are the kinds of things that can still shock Westerners when it comes to "world music" -- we like our Putumayo heroes to stay in their Starbucks-ready niche -- but Tinariwen plays it cool, walking a deliciously fine line between cutting-edge musicality and encapsulation of the past. (Perhaps the pitch-perfect duality of their image is what's prevented their releases from being subjected to dance remixes -- a requirement for almost every other "world musician" to increase Western accessibility. Or maybe we're just finally getting over all that.)
Enough image analysis -- what about the music? We're dealing with several bluesy electric guitars (no bass), some lovely and innovative percussion, a single woman's voice that can sometimes sound like several, and a throaty main vocal by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib that chant-croons and sometimes soars. Grooves are shuffled into slowly, and then amped up to dynamic effect, although noisy catharsis is saved only for key moments. It's a heady, jam-band-sounding combination that often enraptures, and even without the backstory trappings (live, the group sometimes greets audiences with "Welcome to the desert") still tells a story rarely heard, one of a new, unselfconscious fusion of global styles.
For the group's fourth album, Imidiwan: Companions (World Village, 2009), Tinariwen took a break from all the world travelling and got back to its roots, recording in its hometown of Tessalit in Mali and attempting to channel the desert blues on a more intimate scale. The result is communal and virtuosic, and although a bit less visceral than past releases, it exudes a sense of relief -- to be home, to have seen the world, perhaps to have reaped so much acclaim. Opener "Imidiwan Afrik Temdam" is a chuffing sway that Neil Young could easily cover, and shoulder-shaker "Tahult In" is an earworm that could serve as an authentic riposte to Sade's desert-chic "Soldier of Love." "Tenhert" is a handclapping dose of Tuareg rap.
Tinariwen's vast-yet-intimate sound translates equally well to venues as huge as the Glastonbury Festival and as cozy(ish) as Yoshi's and the Palace of Fine Arts, where they've performed several times before. Whether you're there to expand your sonic horizons, take some technical notes from riff-pros, or just whirl about to great tunes, you'll probably be surprised at how many parts of you the music takes hold of and transports, no anthropology course required.
Sun/21, 7 p.m., $25-$65
Palace of Fine Arts Theater
3301 Lyon, SF.