Responding to hate, a Winston-Salem music venue rallies the community behind what just might be the greatest band in the world.
The comments in response to two sponsored posts on Facebook promoting an upcoming Winston-Salem concert by the Grammy-winning and internationally-acclaimed group Tinariwen came in a steady drip of loathing, vitriol and menace.
One commenter from Smithfield wrote on July 13: “Gotta bring my AR, too….”
Another commenter chimed in: “So ISIS is playing the Ramcat? LOL.” And another: “Take the fucking towels off your god damn heads.”
Responding to the Ramkat’s invitation to “join us for Tinariwen, with special guest Lonnie Holley,” one commenter wrote, “Or bomb us, your choice.” A commenter from Randolph County wrote, “Any true American will not support this bunch of trash. Let them perform in their own country. They need to get out of the USA.”
Reacting to a photo of the band wearing traditional north African robes and turbans, a commenter from Archdale, wrote, “Ain’t looking at nothing Muslim. The wanna-be religion that’s the plague of the world.” Another wrote, “Look like terrorists to me. Um no way.”
Apparently picking up on a theme from President Trump’s July 14 tweet calling on four progressive congresswomen of color to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” a new wave of comments unspooled. “Go home; maybe your country will like your music.” “Desert rats in Winston-Salem, NC! Hope they all have green cards!” “Probably not, but if you’re Democrat, who cares? Just let them all in.” “And take the fucking towels off your heads, or go the hell home.”
Richard Emmett, a partner at the Ramkat, has been operating venues and booking music in the region for decades. From booking the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars “many years ago” to showcasing Che Apalache — a group that expresses a distinct viewpoint on migration from Latin America — at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax, Va. and serving on the programming committee for the National Folk Festival during its three-year run in Greensboro, Emmett said he can’t recall any reaction remotely like the backlash to the Tinariwen show.
“I haven’t seen that level of vitriol,” he said. “It was surprising, threatening and downright sad.”
Andy Tennille, also a partner at the Ramkat and a music-industry veteran, said the venue has booked four African bands over the course of its 18-month existence. Tal National, a popular ensemble from Niger, drew a crowd of 200 people, and Tennille said he’s heard from several patrons that it was their favorite show. He said he and Emmett joked that if the Ramkat is still around in 15 years, 500 people will be claiming that they saw the concert.
Both Emmett and Tennille were struck by the irony that Tinariwen, of all groups, is the target of the backlash. Noting that the group has opened for the Rolling Stones and collaborated with Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, Emmett suggested that perhaps Tinariwen’s detractors should take their cues from some of rock music’s universally recognized standard-bearers.
The headline of a 2007 article at Slate.com captures the awe that many first-time listeners experience when first encountering Tinariwen: “Enter sandmen: Is Tinariwen the greatest band on earth?”
Mixing electric guitars with traditional north African percussion instruments, Tinariwen’s music conveys a kind of minimalism and stoicism that strips away all superfluous gestures or flourishes. All at once it evokes both a hot desert wind and the relief that one might seek from searing, dry heat, befitting a group of Tuareg musicians, part of a nomadic group spread across the vast expanse of the Sahara Desert in parts of Mali, Algeria and Niger.
Nothing in Tinariwen’s lyrics or presentation is particularly provocative, religious or suggestive of a challenge to American nativism. The lyrics to “Sastanaqqam,” on Tinariwen’s 2017 album Elwan might even appeal to Harley-riding members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Mechanized Cavalry. Sung in the Tamishek language, the lyrics translate as, “Ténére, can you tell me/ of anything better/ Than to have your friends/ and your mount,/ And a brand new goatskin,/ watertight,/ To find your way/ by the light/ Of the four bright stars/ of heaven,/ To know how/ to find water in/ The unlikeliest of places,/ And enlist the momentum/ of the wind/ To help you forward.”
In terms of sheer badass bootstrapping, any Clint Eastwood or Johnny Cash-loving Three Percenter militia activist would be hard pressed to find a more inspirational figure than Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the founder of Tinariwen. Having witnessed the execution of his father as a 4-year-old during the 1963 Tuareg uprising against the Mali government, Ag Alhabib grew up in refugee camps in Algeria. Ag Alhabib told producer Ian Brennan in a 2012 interview published in Guitar Player magazine that he was inspired by Western cowboy movies to make his first guitars, fashioned by gasoline cans, pieces of wood and rusty wire.
And in terms of standing up to Islamic extremism, Tinariwen’s bona fides are unmatched. In the fall of 2012, a fundamentalist group called Ansar Dine imposed a decree on the northern Mali city of Gao, the Guardian reported, stating, “We don’t want the music of Satan. Qur’anic verses must take its place. Sharia demands it.” Militiamen swarmed over the homes of musicians, dragging guitars, amplifiers, speakers, microphones and drum sets outside and setting them on fire. In January 2013, the members of Tinariwen were forced to flee Mali and their guitar player, Abdallah Ag Lamida, was briefly detained as he tried to save his guitars, according to multiple reports.
If the haters perceive Tinariwen as a threat to Western values, they have it wrong, Richard Emmett said.
“If you’re talking about wanting to have Western values, rock music is one of the best ways to get a wedge in the door,” he said. “They play electric guitars! The comments about ISIS — these guys ban music. Tinariwen promotes music.”
None of the individuals who posted xenophobic and anti-Muslim sentiments in reaction to the upcoming Tinariwen concert agreed to speak with Triad City Beat. One woman, who had written, “Shootout at midnight?” responded via Facebook message to TCB by saying the musicians “look like terrorists,” and then hastily deleted her message and removed her profile.
TCB is withholding the names of the commenters because none are public figures.
Tennille and Emmett said they plan to reach out to Tinariwen’s tour management to discuss the vitriolic comments, and because of the references to bringing an AR-rifle or bombing the concert, they’ll hire additional security and are going to reach out to the Winston-Salem Police Department to request police presence.
Emmett said he’s also reaching out to Interfaith Winston-Salem, Green Street United Methodist Church and mosques in the city in an effort to rally the community behind the concert.
Tennille said ticket sales have been “okay” so far, but he hopes that the release of Tinariwen’snew album Amajdar — with guest spots by Willie Nelson’s son, Micah, among others — 11 days ahead of the concert will spur last-minute interest.
Emmett and Tennille both felt strongly that it was important to speak out about the hate directed at Tinariwen.
“When we received those comments, it made us want to investigate to see what was behind them,” Emmett said. “We wanted to show that’s not representative of our community. Our community is much more tolerant and inclusive of people of all races, religions, social classes, of people with different life experiences. We felt like other voices and other people make us better people. To see that and hear that is important. We want to try to take a negative and make it positive by shining a light on those comments, and to show this is not representative of our community.”