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How this nomadic music group is bridging cultural divides


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: The band Tinariwen hails from the deserts of Mali in North Africa. Its sound blends ancient Saharan instruments with electric guitars, and has earned the band devoted fans around the world.

During a recent U.S. tour,however, band members experienced a darker side of America. Before a North Carolina show, they received a barrage of Islamophobic comments on social media.

But as producer Ali Rogin reports, the city of Winston-Salem banded together to give them a warm welcome.

The story is part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Ali Rogin: The band Tinariwen may have traveled far for this show, but it's on this stage where these musicians are most at home. They hardly speak any English, but here in North Carolina, they feel that their every word is understood.

Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni (through translator): Music is one of those things in life where there are no barriers or borders. And as musicians, this is what gives us the courage to travel very far away from our Sahara Desert.

Ali Rogin: Tinariwen's members are Tuaregs, an ethnic group from all across the Sahara Desert. They're nomads who lay down musical, rather than physical, roots.

The band's music follows a rich Tuareg lyrical tradition, gone electric. And they're rock stars in their own right, sharing stages with Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, and U2's Bono.

The story of Tinariwen follows the story of the Tuareg people. Until 1960, the Tuareg enjoyed autonomy in the north under French colonial rule. But then a series of dictators took control and subjected the Tuaregs to persecution, seizing their ancestral lands.

Many fled to neighboring countries. Tinariwen's founders were among them. They met in an Algerian refugee camp in 1979.

Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni plays guitar.

Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni (through translator): Our music was born out of this reality of exile, hardships and suffering.

Ali Rogin: They moved to Libya to join a Tuareg military unit led by then-dictator Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, who provided them some freedom. But Tinariwen fought with their guitars, not guns. They sang about their people's struggle for freedom in their ancestral land called Azawad.

Alhassane Ag Touhami (through translator): We are from Azawad. Our identity is our Tuareg origin, and our goal for our country takes precedence over absolutely everything.

Ali Rogin: But none of that mattered to a few dozen people on Facebook, who saw a post promoting the show and responded with hate.

"Any true American will not support this bunch of trash. Let them perform in their own country," said one poster.

"Look like terrorists to me. No way," wrote another.

One even threatened to bring his rifle to the show.

Singer Alhassane Ag Touhami responds to the hate with humor.

Alhassane Ag Touhami (through translator): Have they ever seen a terrorist sing a song? People who make music are not terrorists. They are actually persecuted by terrorists.

Ali Rogin: Tinariwen knows that firsthand. When Islamist extremists took control of their native Northern Mali in 2012, Tinariwen refused to obey the extremists' music ban. One band member was briefly kidnapped.

Alhassane Ag Touhami (through translator): We know that some people in the U.S. say wrong and negative things about us, but we do not feel anything about them, because they are wrong.

Ali Rogin: And most people in Winston-Salem would agree.

Wake Forest University senior Yassmin Shaltout grew up here, after her family left Egypt when she was 2 years old.

Yassmin Shaltout: I'm constantly surrounded by people that are very welcoming.

Ali Rogin: She's watched the Muslim community grow just within her lifetime.

Yassmin Shaltout: They used to get together at a local house, and then the church space was bought and converted into a mosque. We have added new parking space new building for a Sunday school, so that expansion is even viewed in, like, the physical expansion of space to accommodate more people.

Ali Rogin: But that expansion in the Tar Heel State has created tension.

In 2015, a man in nearby Chapel Hill murdered three college students, all Muslims. Shaltout said it was a reminder that there is still some bigotry in her backyard.

Yassmin Shaltout: I do feel that, sometimes, my community is like a bubble, and it's been sheltered from all of these other terrible acts we see going on so close by.

Ali Rogin: But in this area, hate against a few is mourned by the many. After an anti-Muslim terrorist killed 51 people in a New Zealand mosque in March, non-Muslims filled a local Islamic center here to show solidarity with their neighbors.

And they did the same before the Tinariwen show at the Ramkat club.

This venue typically doesn't have a police presence, but because of some of the threatening comments the band received, the Ramkat increased security for tonight's show. But, as you can see, folks are still lining up outside, and the Ramkat says ticket sales for a Tuesday night are higher than usual.

McKenzie Gillis: Honestly, if you didn't buy tickets and you didn't give these people money, they would have no reason to care about what you're saying anyway.

Roy Hantgan: These are excellent musicians, peace-loving people who have a long tradition of making music, great music.

Ali Rogin: Before the show, city council members join the managers of the venue to declare it Tinariwen Day.

Richard Emmett: We are happy that you are here. We are happy that you have chosen to be here this night.

Ali Rogin: Democratic Governor Roy Cooper wrote a letter welcoming them, and local musicians like Ryan Macleod recorded cover versions of Tinariwen songs.

Ryan Macleod: I think everybody has experienced outrage fatigue, where you don't know what to do. And so here was something we could do to show that this isn't who we are in this town.

Ali Rogin: Tinariwen has always believed in the power of musical camaraderie. Their new album, "Amadjar," features American artists, including, Cass McCombs and Micah Nelson, the son of Willie.

Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni (through translator): There is this brotherhood, automatic friendship and acceptance between musicians. It lets us bond as soon as we meet each other.

Ali Rogin: Their album title means foreign traveler. The songs champion universal values, love, brotherhood, and freedom, in their case, freedom for the Tuareg themselves. All around the world, their songs of longing for a lost homeland have opened doors.

Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni (through translator): We keep asking ourselves how is it possible that people who do not understand us or our culture, very far from our reality, can warmly welcome and support us. Words can't possibly explain how great we feel about that.

Ali Rogin: Tinariwen's new album is named for a foreign traveler, but, here, they were welcomed as native sons.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Ali Rogin in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Judy Woodruff: And what a great story.

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