If one were to belief the more sensationalistic movies and books you'd end up thinking the deserts of the world were endless wastelands where no life could possibly exist. However, while it's true life in the desert is hard, it does exist, and people native to the world's deserts have managed to find ways of carving out an existence for themselves.
From the Hopi of the American South West who grow crops of corn in tiered gardens on the side of mesas, the bush men of the Kalahari in South Africa who live as hunter gathers, to the nomadic Kel Tamasheq of the North Sahara who shepherd their flocks of goats and camels across some of the harshest landscape in the world, they've all found a way to live in their chosen environment.
Unfortunately, the modern world doesn't seem to make allowances for people who elect to live a life outside of what is considered normal. Where once the caravans of the Kel Tamasheq could wander freely from what is now Algeria in the north to their major southern camp of Agadez in what is now Niger, there are now borders to be negotiated and lands both fenced off and depleted by the mining and industry. However, the Kel Tamasheq have a long history of resisting incursions upon their territory and attacks on their way of life.
The Arab armies attempting to spread Islam in the 1400s named them Tuareg, rebels, as even when defeated they refused to surrender who they were entirely to their conquerors. Instead they adopted the camels of their invaders and expanded their caravans to include trade as well as herds and adapted elements of the new religion to suit their own beliefs.
Known to some as the Indigo people for the distinctive deep purple colour of their robes, the Kel Tamasheq travelled the caravan routes of the Sahara without any major interruptions until well into the twentieth century. Even colonial expansion and two world wars did little to interfere with their centuries old traditions. They lived in some of the least forgiving and harshest climates this side of the Arctic and Antarctic Circles after all, and while it might have made for a hard life, it pretty much guaranteed little or no outside interference. A
fter all, there wasn't anything in that wasteland to make the effort involved in controlling it worth while. All that changed with the end of colonial rule as the once broad expanse of their traditional territory was arbitrarily segmented by the borders of emerging nations, some of whom didn't appreciate the Kel Tamasheq's independence. The early 1960s saw the beginning of what would turn into close to forty years of sporadic fighting between Kel Tamasheq warriors and government forces from predominately Niger and Mali.
Whole families were forced into exile from Niger in the early 1960s by government anti-Tuareg policies with the majority winding up in Libya. It was here, growing up removed from their traditional lifestyle, a dissatisfied generation of young Kel Tamasheq became the nucleus of those who picked up arms in the 1980s and 90s in an attempt to regain the territories and rights that had been taken away from them.
It was also in Libya that some of these young men began to discover Western pop music and began blending it with their own traditions to create the distinctive sound which has become their hallmark. While the life of a musician has on occasion been no less risky than that of an armed rebel - the Niger government made possession of "Guitar Music" illegal and targeted its performers for assassination - it was seen as an ideal way of communicating with their people in order to keep their traditions alive and letting the world know about their struggle to survive.
Although only founded in 2001 the band Terakaft has roots that date back to the earliest days of the guitar revolution. Both current and former members of the band were involved with the founding, and retain close ties with, arguably the most famous Kel Tamasheq band, Tinariwen and its enigmatic leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. For its third release, Aratan N Azawad, on the World Village Music label June 14 2011, the band's line up includes Liya Ag Ablil (aka Diara), formally of Tinariwen, Abdallah Ag Ahmed and Sanou Ag Ahmed.
The disc features a combination of material written by Diara and his late brother Inteyeden Ag Abil (another founder of Tinariwen) during the uprisings twenty years ago and those by the current line up, ensuring the recording retains the fire and spirit of rebellion that made the music so compelling in the first place while recognizing the need for moving into new territory.
Listening to Aratan N Azawad (Children Of The Azawad) without translation or liner notes due to a postal strike in Canada preventing me from obtaining a hard copy, I had anticipated having difficulties in finding the means of connecting with the music. While in most cases the lyrics are impressionistic and lose something in the translation (usually they are translated from the original Tamasheq into French and then into English) on previous discs by Terakaft and other Kel Tamasheq bands what's available has been enough to formulate an idea of what a song is about. However, the music on its own is so compelling it draws you into a world, like their desert homeland, which is both familiar and alien at the same time.
Online promotional material describes how the title track "Aratan N Azawad" insists Kel Tamasheq children study their language, history and culture, which is "written in the mountains", for there to be hope for the future. Even this snippet of information is revealing as it tells us how deeply they as a people are intertwined with their environment.
Reading this you begin to understand a little of the passion which fuelled the rebellions of the past and continues to fuel today's music. The land they live on, the land they see being gradually taken away from them by encroaching cities, pollution and the exploitation of natural resources, is not just something to be used and exploited, but is part of the very fabric of their beings and culture. Separating them from their territory becomes the same as taking away their language and a sizeable chunk of their identity.
If that sounds like I'm reading a lot into a little, wait until you hear the music accompanying songs like this one and others which stress Terakaft's vision of national unity for their people that has nothing to do with today's borders. "Akoz Imgharen", Four Patriarchs, advocates a council of elders representing the four corners of the Kel Tamasheq territories and reminds listeners how they were part of life in the Sahara long before any of the countries trying to control them existed.
It's not just the past or other serious issues the music celebrates either. Listen to "Idya Idohena" and "Hegh Tenere" and you hear a band who understands music can be fun as well. While the former is a tribute to the midnight dance parties young people enjoy under the desert skies, the latter shows the band pushing their music in new directions as they incorporate bass and drum grooves which give the song a funkier sound then anything we've heard from the desert before.
However, as is only fitting as it leant its name to both the genre and those who played it, the guitar still takes pride of place in all their material. Both in propelling the rhythm and defining the passion behind the stories through soaring leads, the duo guitar work of Diara and Sanou are in the forefront of each and every track. While the blues based rock of Hendrix and others still predominates, other styles have now begun to flesh out the guitar sound including neighbouring West African pop music.
While this provides a lighter tone to some of the material, it doesn't diminish the intensity of its overall effect, nor the trance like elements of the sound which made it so compelling to listeners in the first place. In fact it's one of the finer examples of a band expanding its sound without surrendering anything of what made it appealing in the first place.
Aratan N Azawad, the new album by Terakaft is a wonderful example of both the music of the Kel Tamasheq people of the Sahara desert region of North Africa and how traditional and modern music can combine to make something spectacular. Even without being able to understand the lyrics one can't help but be impressed by the passion and the intensity of the feelings that have gone into the creation of this work. Even if you were unaware of the history behind the music it would be breathtaking.
As it is, knowing what we do about the Kel Tamasheq's fight to preserve their way of life in the face of nearly overwhelming odds, it's impossible to listen to this disc without being moved. This is music generated by a soul's powerful belief in something greater than itself and it shows. There's no other popular music that can compare to it.
(Article first published as Music Review: Terakaft - Aratan N Azawad on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted June 2011)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.