n the evocative Tamasheq language, spoken by nomadic Tuareg people of the North African Sahara, “ténéré” means “desert” — and is also synonymous with “alone.”
It is this second sense of the word that’s intended by the title of “Ténéré,” fifth and latest studio album from Terakaft, a stripped-down offshoot of the sprawling, Grammy-winning Tuareg collective Tinariwen. The four-piece Terakaft presents its spacious, trancelike, self-described “desert rock” in a free concert Sept. 13 at Martyrs’, as part of World Music Festival Chicago.
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 13
Where: Martyrs’, 3855 N. Lincoln
Tickets: Free (21+over)
Band mainstay (and previously a founding player in Tinariwen) Liya Ag Ablil, the venerated rhythm guitarist familiarly known as Diara, “chose the title,” Terakaft’s manager Philippe Brix said in a recent multi-day email exchange from his office in France. “Diara explained that in this case he meant ‘feeling alone,’ like you feel in the desert.” Brix, who managed Tinariwen before guiding Terakaft’s career, is the member of Terakaft’s team most fluent in English, and therefore served as designated interviewee.
In response to one emailed query, Brix confirmed that he and the group communicate among themselves in French, the official non-native language of Terakaft’s politically turbulent native country, Mali. He then detailed how Diara pursues two distinct (yet overlapping) callings: successful recording artist and nomadic animal herder. In the latter role, 55-year old Diara leads his flock of “more than a hundred camels and sheep” through the mountainous, arid bush in a continual search for elusive rainfall-spawned grass to graze them on.
The married father of four’s eldest son, 14, “wants to be a shepherd, Brix noted, “and Diara is happy to teach him when he is not on tour. He brings his whole family, following the grass,” and singing and playing around campfire at night.
Diara had spent two decades with the pioneering desert-blues ensemble he’d helped launch when a crucial missed flight – on the cusp of an international tour, a point after which Tinariwen would lift off to international acclaim – set him on an alternate musical path: In 2006 Diara joined Terakaft (“caravan” in Tamasheq), which his nephew and rhythm-guitar protege, Sanou Ag Ahmed, had formed five years earlier.
“If I was part of Tinariwen today,” Diara mused, via Brix, “Sanou [now 24] would play in Tinariwen too. Then Terakaft would have been a shadow caravan.” (Brix noted that Diara still plays live dates with Tinariwen.)
In 2012, Terakaft members found themselves fleeing to neighboring Algeria when radical Islamists overran northern Mali, in the wake of a Tuareg uprising and subsequent military coup – banning all music, among many other extremist measures. Today, Diara lives with his family in Timiaouine, which Brix described as “an oasis in south Algeria, not far from the Mali border.” As for Diara’s nephew, who recently married a young French woman, Sanou divides his residency between Paris, the Algerian Tuareg town of Tamanrasset, and of course, the bush.
Sanou penned three and Diara five of the nine tracks (one is a solo reprise of his full-band leadoff cut, “Anabayou”) on “Ténéré [Alone],” released by the Germany-based, African music label Outhere Records. At once gritty and elegant, “Alone” passionately expresses the plight of the Tuareg people in Tamasheq (with French and English translations in the accompanying booklet) – buoyed up by Terakaft’s defiantly danceable music.
And while Sanou concurs with Brix’s assessment that “Terakaft is a caravan for peace,” he disdains preachiness. “Our songs are not messages – they just tell our stories,” Sanou stressed. “And our music is for dancing.”
“For the recording of ‘Ténéré,’” said producer Justin Adams, whose credits also include Tinariwen (and, as a guitarist, Robert Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters), “we hit upon an approach which I felt balanced contemporaneity with authenticity.
“I love the particular lope of Diara and Sanou’s groove,” Adams elaborated, “so we got them to record hand percussion for each song, using traditional rhythms.
“We layered and looped percussion with the intention of making the tracks stand up alongside of modern hip-hop grooves. I don’t speak Tamasheq and I assume that the majority of cd buyers don’t either – so the music has to speak for itself.”
Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.