09/15/2015, BOSSA, Washington, DC

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No other band from the desert is more close to Tinariwen than Terakaft. Because it is a part of it. A part that has grown like the rock arm of the desert loose collective.

Since their beginnings, Terakaft are playing songs from Tinariwen, the share from Inteyeden ag Ablil ...

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Samantha Brickler

Alone in the Sahara, Rocking the World: Hope Defies Crisis in the Tuareg Desert Blues of Mali’s Terakaft

The Sahara desert looks endless: Shifting plains of sand with a huge sea of burning blue skies above. But the empty land holds echoes of a time that tried to take hope from the people of the sand, the Tuareg, who make it their home. Their crisis is at the heart of Terakaft’s fifth album, Alone (release: September 11, 2015 on OutHere Records). Now the healing has begun, and in their music the band is seeking a future for their Tuareg people, a future filled with joy and life.

“Our music can show people how much Tuaregs enjoy life, what we like to share with other people,” says guitarist and singer Sanou Ag Ahmed. “Perhaps there’s a harder edge in the music because of what happened in Mali in 2012, but it’s an unconscious thing. Our goal with this was to make the songs very danceable.”

And they’ve succeeded. Producer Justin Adams (Tinariwen, Robert Plant) has amped up the bass and drums and given the twin guitars of Ag Ahmed and his uncle, Diara, an edge that slices and jumps through the music. It’s where the ancient melodies crash right into today.

“Terakaft sounds like the guardians of the original Tuareg guitar music I heard back in the 1990s,” Adams explains “In these troubled times, we have made an album that presents the deep Saharan rhythms as a vital contemporary heartbeat.”

More than anything, it’s a disc that captures exactly the way Terakaft sounds onstage. The space of the desert is still a vital ingredient, but this is also music made for the 21st century.

“Terakaft always sounds rock on stage,” notes Ag Ahmed. “This time we wanted to underline it on record. That was the central idea when we discussed the sessions with Justin. He just wanted to show our real personality. He makes the material sound strong and true. Each part is very precise. But at the same time he’s very respectful of the basic song and its meaning.”

20 years ago, Terakaft started life as part of desert blues pioneers Tinariwen, gradually taking on its own identity after 2001. Only after Diara left Tinariwen to join the nephew whom he’d taught to play guitar in Terakaft, bringing his songs and wealth of guitar experience, did the band find its edge and form. “Diara has been writing songs all his life,” Ag Ahmed points out. “He’s still composing new songs, like ‘Anabayou,’ but plenty of those on Alone are older, like ‘Amidinin Senta Aneflas.’ He believes their messages still fit today.”

Those messages carry some of the despair that arrived with the incursion of the Islamists into the band’s home region of Northern Mali three years ago. “They began to forbid music and many other things,” Ag Ahmed recalls. “How could we live without music? It is such a great thing for all of us. Music is pure life in the desert. Music is like freedom.”

Freedom did return and with it the sense of hope that underpins the lyrics of the songs towards the end of the album, like the celebration of “Wahouche Natareh” with its twin guitar spiral. But the road to that place traverses some dark territory. There’s the hard, spiky blues of “Karambani” and the treachery beneath “Oulhin Asnin.” It’s a journey that as much emotional as musical, emerging finally into the light of “Anabayou.”

Even the album’s title – Alone – carries resonances of the recent conflict, as well as the isolation of the Sahara. “Diara came up with the name,” Ag Ahmed says. “Alone for all reasons I suppose. Because things are never like we expect them to be. And because we do not know what will come after.”

Caught between two warring factions, all the Tuareg wanted was to be able to live their lives without disturbance or threat. To make their crossings, to know some peace and make their music. But even in one of the world’s isolated places, life can be tenuous. The fragility of existence in the desert rings loud through Terakaft’s music. Not only is the band an extended family, something so vital among nomads, but even their name translates as caravan, still an important form of transport over the endless sands.

“A caravan is a huge symbol for the Tuareg way of life,” Ag Ahmed says. “And many people can follow the caravan. It’s an idea we all really like.”

Terakaft’s desert blues is the music of brotherhood, of the co-operation so necessary t in a people who inhabit the fringes of the world. There’s a powerful intimacy to it. With Alone, they’ve simply translated those songs to a larger stage and put them in a context where they can be understood all over the globe.

“When we play in the desert around the fire, no doubt it is desert blues,” Ag Ahmed agrees. “When we play live all over the world, the sound is more powerful. That’s because we want people to dance. They’re exactly the same songs; we just play them differently.”

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