Lapping at your consciousness

With "Amankor/The Exile", the Kel Tamashek band Tartit have produced another cultural treasure for the rest of the world to appreciate. Their original intent may have been to keep their own culture alive, but in the process they have succeeded in bringing the sound of the desert into all our lives. By Richard Marcus

By Richard Marcus

Like most of the earliest Kel Tamasheq bands, Tartit formed in the mid 1990s while in exile from their homes in northern Mali. It was the latest in a series of Tamasheq uprisings since the 1960s that saw the people fighting to preserve their traditional territories and way of life through armed conflict. The warfare resulted in many Tamasheq people moving to refugee camps in order to escape reprisals from the Malian government and armed forces.

However, unlike other groups who were formed by ex-rebels, most famously Tinariwen, Tartit, as befits its meaning – ʹUnionʹ – is made up of people from all walks of life. What truly distinguishes the band from its contemporaries, however, is the fact that the four lead singers are women. While other groups have had women sing with them, Tartit is one of the few women-led bands from the region that has made an impact internationally.

As women are considered the repositories of culture and tradition among the Tamasheq, Tartit's role in ensuring their people's history is kept alive can't be underestimated. The sight of the four women seated singing and playing drums and percussion, surrounded by veiled male musicians on guitars, flute and ngoni is highly symbolic. The women are the heart and soul of the people, while the men are tasked with their safekeeping.

Empowered women

This inter-relationship, and the equal rights enjoyed by women among the Tamasheq, is reflected in their songs' lyrics. The ninth song on the recording, "Tamat"/"The Woman", emphasises their importance through the following, "The woman is the central pillar of the tent, and if the pillar falls, the whole tent will fall".

Cover of Tartitʹs "Amankor/The Exile" (distributed by Riverboat Records/World Music Network)
The heart and soul of their people: "as women are considered the repositories of culture and tradition among the Tamashek, Tartit's role in ensuring their people's history is kept alive shouldn't be underestimated. The sight of the four women seated singing and playing drums and percussion surrounded by veiled male musicians on guitars, flute and ngoni is highly symbolic," writes Marcus

As they are a women-fronted band we gain a very different perspective of life in the Sahara than that generally offered by the male groups. While the men might wax philosophical about the desert and the nomadic life, women deal with the harsh realities of existence in that environment. However, in spite of this, songs such as "Tiliaden N'Asahara"/"The Girls of the Sahara", which depict the difficulties of their life, also proclaim their love for where they live and ask for help in preserving it.

Part of trying to regain what has been lost is remembering what things used to be like. While some might misconstrue this as fruitless nostalgia or holding onto the past, it can also be seen as trying to ensure something precious isn't gone forever. While some people might look to the 'good old days' because they fear change and what it might do to their status, Tartit looks to the past for inspiration and examples of peaceful co-existence with their environment.

Moving forward in unity and solidarity

Yet even while songs like "Asaharaden" are a memory of when the desert wasn't divided by war and hatred, they also continue to offer messages of hope for the future. The song "Afous Dafous"/"Hand in Hand", is named for a children's game that teaches unity and solidarity. As long as people work together they can hope for a brighter future.

In the same vein, the song "Tanminak" urges the Kel Tamasheq to heal their differences caused by the last uprising. In 2012 the people were split, with some following a leader who aligned himself with religious fundamentalists who dreamed of ruling northern Mali. In the short time they controlled the region they attacked musicians, closed cinemas and forbid the education of young women.

Although Mali is still facing a terrorist threat – the famed "Festival au Desert" hasn't been held since 2012, for instance – musicians like Tartit continue to defy the implied danger to their lives. Not only have they returned from exile, they recorded Amankor in Bamako, the capital of Mali.

Celebrating the roots of rhythm

Musically the album is a blend of what we've come to expect from contemporary Tamasheq blues bands and a far more traditional sound. While the hypnotic, trance-inducing rhythms produced by the guitars and hand drums are still omnipresent, the vocals provided by the women, led by Fadimata Walet Oumar (a.k.a. Disco) are something new.

While there has always been an element of chanting associated with bands from this background's vocals, in these songs we hear the roots of those rhythms. Listening to these four women sing, we hear the origins of the sound we've come to associate with the Tamasheq. Their voices work with their hand drums to weave patterns that pull you into the song. Periodically the singing/chanting of lyrics is augmented by the spine-tingling sound of a single voice raised in ululation.

Naturally each song on the album is a distinct unit with its own themes, yet the true power of this recording is only revealed when listened to in its entirety. Like a tide edging gradually forward until it washes the edges of an observer's feet, this music laps at our consciousness until we succumb to its power.

Distributed by Riverboat Records, Amankor/The Exile by Tartit is the perfect example of how tradition and modernity can come together to make something unique and powerful. Instead of sinking into a morass of nostalgia for a past that no longer exists, Tartit aims instead to show us how people can draw upon the power of tradition to build a new future. This combination of musical talent and deep-rooted inspiration makes Amankor difficult to ignore and almost impossible to forget.

Richard Marcus

© 2019