Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s face is etched with the desert sun. A former member of Mali’s Tuareg rebel movement, the MPA, he has spent his life in the arid southern Sahara. With his band, Tinariwen, formed 30 years ago in a Kaddafi-sponsored rebel training camp in Libya, he still roams the desert, with a Fender Stratocaster on his shoulder where a Kalashnikov once hung. He describes his band’s style as “assouf,” which means loneliness, longing—the darkness beyond the campfire.
Today, Alhabib is getting ready to play the Big Chill festival in the bucolic British countryside. “I like the security here, but I miss desert life,” he says. Tinariwen’s haunting desert blues has won a huge following in Europe, where the band’s concerts are regularly sold out. No wonder producers and festival organizers are busy scouting the world’s conflict-torn regions for similarly powerful acts. These Simon Cowells of the world-music scene are cultivating new genres that combine the traditional sounds of protest music with modern instruments and globalized publicity machines.