Any discussion of the musical genre 'Tuareg Desert Blues” starts and
ends with one word: Tinariwen. They basically invented the genre,
built the playbook and have since spawned dozens of friends, fans,
and imitators from all adjacent regions, from Libya to Burkina Faso,
from Bombino to Tamikrest, usually with native costume, always with
jangly guitars. I've even considered learning the language myself
just to get some lyrical insight...
In a sense, they even spawned me, as something of a music critic, which I
never intended to be. But I picked Tinariwen out of a many-hundreds
pile of free CD's at the 2006 WOMEX, most of which got tossed after
one brief listen, except Tinariwen which got listened to over and
over and over. Little more than a year later they had 'broken out'
and were playing double sets at the Temple Bar in Santa Monica and
the rest would be history...
Now some of those Tinariwen wannabes are better than others, of course,
and some could be accused of copping the look, and the back-story,
without paying all those dues and not worthy of all those blues. And
what a back-story it is: desert rebels laying down guns and picking
up guitars! I wonder who'll play the lead role in the Hollywood
version? Hmmm... lets see now... FADE-IN: Barren desert of sand
dunes and drifts, ENTER blue-robed TUAREG man with guitar...
But of all those imitators, Terakaft is still top-tier and damn good
IMHO, though Tamikrest and Bombino are nipping at the leaders' heels.
By definition you can't be better than Tinariwen, because they
defined the genre. That'd be like being better than God, or the
Beatles. But Terakaft even have a direct connection to the founding
lineage, through Diara the patriarch, songwriter and guitarist, and
his nephew Sanou, vocalist and guitarist.
For their fifth and latest album, 'Alone', they've even got Justin Adams
as producer, longtime collaborator with Tinariwen and guitarist for
Robert Plant. If this all sounds like a recipe for success, well, it
is. And if this is the point at which desert blues turns into desert
rock, then that's ironic, since the title of the album 'Tenere'
translates as 'alone' and Tuaregs tend to conglomerate as one big
extended family, especially the Tinariwen family.
But this comes upon the horrid heels and tortured tales of the
brief-lived Azawad state of 2012, in which Muslim fundamentalists
co-opted longstanding Tuareg discontent with the Malian central
government in sub-Saharan Bamako, and imposed a strict regime in
which music was not even allowed. Ouch! Wounds like those are slow
to heal, especially with the demise of the dream of a desert Azawad
But isn't that what music is for, to heal those wounds? And isn't that
what all Malians have in common, they with the best world music per
capita in the entire world, from the Sahara desert blues to Ali Farka
Toure's Sahel folk-rock to the Bamako urban scene of Salif Keita and
various Diabates and numerous Traores and many many others playing
traditional instruments like kora and ngoni?
It has been claimed that American blues originated somewhere in Mali and
that just might be the case—sounds good to me. The only problem
for a non-Kel Tamashek speaker, like most of us, is that without
words, the songs can tend to run together. Terakaft avoids that trap
better than most, with diverse melodies and rhythms that are quite
memorable even without recognizable lyrics. And though some of the
others may be trendier and going more modern in approach, Terakaft
seems to prefer to maintain the traditional approach and sound, maybe
even more than Tinariwen themselves!
And it sounds good even without desert sand as background visuals! And
it sounds good even when they're not wearing blue robes! And it
sounds good even if they're playing in a mall in Europe! And it
sounds good even when you carry it in your head to chase those
civilization blues away! And yes, you can dance to it—highly
recommended, in fact. It might just set you free. That's Tenere'
('Alone') by Terakaft, available in both digital and physical formats
on 9/11—wait a minute...