The lions of Tamasheq music

Since 2012, the Kel Tamasheq way of life has been under renewed threat from the violence of insurgents. But according to Richard Marcus, if the insurgents thought they would be able to shut Tamasheq bands up and obliterate Tamasheq culture by forcing them into exile, they were very wrong indeed. Bands such as Terakaft are determined to keep their traditions and culture alive through their music

By Richard Marcus

Most of us would regard the shifting sands of the Sahara desert as a less than ideal home. The Kel Tamasheq, commonly known as the Tuareg, have called it home for more than a thousand years. From what is now Algeria in the north to Niger in the south, they shepherded their herds and caravans across territory most of us wouldn't even consider habitable. Although they converted to Islam, they have also retained their old traditions and beliefs, which were closely tied up in their nomadic lifestyle and their symbiotic relationship with the surrounding landscape.

However, when the region was divided up into countries following the end of colonial rule during the 1960s, it became increasingly difficult for them to maintain both control of their territory and their way of life. After years of armed struggle and persecution from governments in both Niger and Mali, treaties were eventually signed with both countries which ceded the Kel Tamasheq certain rights and recognitions. It was in honour of these treaties that the annual Festival au Desert, an international music festival, was inaugurated in 2001. Unfortunately, in 2012, violence broke out again, threatening both the Kel Tamasheq way of life and their traditions.

In the modern era, music and storytelling have always been key ways of trying to preserve their culture. In the 1980s and 90s, "the guitar players" were the targets of both the Malian and Niger governments for their abilities to invoke nationalistic spirit among the Kel Tamasheq. While those behind the uprising in 2012 targeted all musicians, Tamasheq bands were under the greatest threat because Northern Mali was their home. However, if the insurgents thought they would be able to shut them up by forcing them into exile, they were wrong. In fact, they seriously underestimated Tamasheq bands' determination to keep their traditions alive.

Terakaft, which is made up of central figures Liya Ag Ablil (aka Diara) and his nephew Sanou Ag Ahmed, began life 20 years ago as part of Northern Mali's most famous musical export, Tinariwen. Diara had been one of the founding members of the band, but moved on to help form Terakaft in 2007. Born out of the crucible of the rebellions of the 1980s and 90s, the band's sound and lyrics have been tempered and refined by the recent troubles in their homeland.

A celebration and a sober reflection

Cover of the album "Alone" by Terakaft (source: Outhere records)
Echoes of earlier music and new musical departures: "While that came under threat in recent years, Terakaft has remained true to its calling and continue to spread their message of hope and endurance both home and abroad," writes Richard Marcus

Their new CD, Alone, on Outhere Records, has a harder edge than previous releases, perhaps reflecting the disquieting events they've recently lived through. However, there is also a sense of joy permeating the music as well. From the rhythms of the songs, grounded in the bass and drums of French musicians Andrew Sudhibhaslip and Nicolas Grupp respectively, to the melodies, the emphasis seems to be split between imparting a celebration of life in the desert and the recent hardships they experienced.

Judging by the disc's title, you might think that the songs would deal with feelings of isolation. However, there's more than one meaning to the word "alone"; it doesn't have to mean loneliness. Being alone in the desert, surrounded by the beauty of its natural surroundings isn't lonely; it instead means drinking in and enjoying the environment without fear of being disturbed. It's a knowledge and awareness that only comes from generations of having learned how to live in an unforgiving climate.

Of course the other implication of the disc's title is that the Kel Tamasheq simply want to be left alone to tell their stories and live the life they have led for centuries. Without translations of the song's lyrics, interpretation is based on trying to discern their content from individual titles and the emotions the music suggests. Interestingly enough, translations might not make much of a difference anyway; both the opening and closing songs of the disc are titled "Anabayou" but are translated as "Awkward" and "Solo" respectively.

"We are here and we're not going anywhere"

Knowing how bands like Terakaft have used their music in an effort to keep their culture alive by providing reminders of their traditions and what's important to their people will also help give listeners clues to what the tracks are about. While song titles like "Karambani" ("Nastiness") and "Oulhin Asnin" ("My Heart Suffers") obviously refer to the terror of the last few years, "Tafouk Tele" ("The Sun Is There"), "Itilla Ihene Dagh Aitma" (To My Brothers) and "Wahouche Natareh" ("Lions") have echoes of earlier music, which talked about life among the dunes and oasis of the Sahara.

Symbolically, lions have always been figures of bravery for desert people, but they also are communal animals that can only survive by working together as an extended family. Invoking this animal can be both a call for bravery and a call for the Kel Tamasheq to remember they work best as a united community. As their way of life has become harder to maintain through loss of territory and war, it is more important then ever for the people to present a common front to those who would do them harm.

Those familiar with Terakaft's previous releases will hear considerable musical differences on  "Alone". According to the band, this was a deliberate attempt to recreate their sound when they perform live. As Ag Ahmed says, "When we play all over the world, the sound is more powerful. That's because we want people to dance". From the pulsating drum introduction to the disc's opening song, which also serves as an overture warning us of what's to come for the entire recording, to the harder edged guitars throughout, this album is the band's boldest statement yet.

With the loss of territory, indigenous people the world over have had to fight harder and harder to hold on to their cultural identities and traditions. The primary weapon of choice for the Kel Tamasheq in recent years has been music. While that came under threat in recent years, Terakaft has remained true to its calling and continues to spread its message of hope and endurance both home and abroad. "Alone" is the band's way of saying, "We are here and we're not going anywhere".

Richard Marcus

© 2015