Where ever you find indigenous peoples, you find they are known by the name their conquerors gave them. From North America, where we refer to nations by the names we gave them instead of how they refer to themselves in their own language, to the Northern Sahara where the people are known by the name given them by the armies of Islam, rebels against Islam—Touareg. (The written language of these people was originally symbols which do not correspond directly with the letters of our alphabet. So they are written out in the various languages of those who have come into contact with them to sound correct. So Touareg can be spelt Tuareg and Tamasheq can be spelt Tamashek.) That of course isn’t the name they have for themselves. They call themselves Kel Tamasheq, those who speak Tamasheq.
So when the group Terakaft called their latest CD, Kel Tamasheq, released on the World Village label October 9, 2012, you know they don’t do it lightly. The title is a bold statement of self identification and the CD is an assertion of who they are as a people. With recent uprisings in Northern Mali being blamed on a force supposedly made up of a combination of Tamasheq rebels and Islamic fundamentalists, it’s important the world is reminded who the Tamasheq really are and what they’ve been fighting for since the 1960s. As musicians like Terakaft and others have served as cultural historians for their people since the 1980s, they are best prepared to act as cultural ambassadors to the rest of the world.
They have assumed this role in the past, but upon reading the translations of the lyrics that come with this CD there’s a sense of urgency absent on previous recordings. While earlier CDs have focused on extolling the virtues of the nomadic life or lamenting the loss of traditional territories, Kel Tamasheq talks specifically about the reasons their people have rebelled in the past. It’s as if the band is asking the rest of the world to compare what they felt was worth dying for in the past to what’s happening in Northern Mali right now and to see the differences. While maybe they’ll regret not pointing out the bleeding obvious (as in, what fundamentalist would have anything to do with a people Muslims still call rebels against Islam?), taking the high ground by stressing their own positives rather than calling attention to another’s negatives has always been a hallmark of Terakaft’s material.
Thus the majority of the songs on the disc have lyrics which extoll one or more aspects of life among the Kel Tamasheq. However, there are the occasional references to the nature of rebellion that seem to be questioning the validity of the recent uprisings in Northern Mali. In “Imad Halan” (“The Volunteers”) the band sings, “I am stunned at your involvement/Which does not support those who work/If this is the revolution you want to provoke/I can see it coming from afar”. While they express their shock that any of their people would be involved with an uprising involving outsiders which doesn’t help their own people in “Bas Tela Takaraket” (“There Are No More Morals”), they offer a more direct commentary on the revolt. “Our culture has escaped us/Those who were warriors before, armed with sabres/Those from whom we have inherited our ancestors/We continue in their path/We will not submit/Nor will we make an alliance with the enemy”.
Here they are expressing their worry over the loss of their culture, as demonstrated by people picking up weapons for the wrong reasons. Previous generations, those who fought to preserve the culture, are the ones that should be emulated. The last line, “Nor will we make an alliance with the enemy”, serves notice they know the people supposedly fighting in the name of the Kel Tamasheq in Northern Mali are doing nothing of the sort. It goes against everything previous generations of warriors fought for to join with those whose goals don’t include restoring the rights of their people. The title of the song suggests fighting for any other reason is wrong and is a sign people have forgotten key elements of their culture.
Of all the songs on the disc the title track, “Kel Tamasheq”, is the one which exemplifies the band’s attempts to remind their own people to let the world know who they are. “Kel Tamasheq, you must know/It is the time to proclaim to the world/And to no longer be hidden/The one you love purely and sincerely/Whether it is in life or death/No matter the connection, separation will come/In this world or the next.” The first three lines are fairly straight forward—it’s time to stand up and let the world know we exist. However, the last four lines seem a bit of a puzzle at a first glance as they don’t appear to have anything to do with opening. At first I thought there might be a problem with the translation (the lyrics are translated from Tamasheq into French and then French into English). Yet if you look at other songs on the disc you’ll see how this type of abrupt change is common and a number are written in the same sort of elliptical and allegorical manner.
Thinking about what little I know of the Kel Tamasheq culture and their oral traditions of storytelling and what I also know about traditions in Islamic poetry, where personal expressions of love are used to express one’s love of god or country, these lines make a little more sense. What I came up with was their love of their land and way of life will endure even unto death. One way or another this love will let them be distinguished from everyone else, even if it’s only after they are dead. Unfortunately I’m not steeped enough in the legends of these people to be able to delve any deeper. But it does fit into what I know of their fierce love of independence and their long struggles to preserve their traditional way of life. We will be free, even if it’s only after we die
One thing you will notice about the band’s songs is how the lyrics are usually only one or two statements in length. These are sung to the accompaniment of music that is almost trance like in its nature. A hypnotic drum beat underscores everything and acoustic guitar and bass emphasize the rhythm over which they are sung/chanted. Electric guitar adds both another layer to the beat, as well as rising out of it for short bursts of lead work. These are like flashes of lightening cutting across a desert sky creating stark silhouettes making specific objects stand out from the rest of the landscape. While the guitar offers one kind of punctuation to the songs, Naida and Yamina Nid El Mourid’s background vocalizations bring the sound of the desert to life.
While some of their vocal harmonies to Liya Ag Abil’s (guitar vocals), Sanou Ag Ahmen’s (guitar, bass and vocials) and Abdalah Ag Ahmed’s (guitar,bass and vocals) leads are what we’re used to, they also periodically interject the high pitched sound women traditionally make to send men off, or to welcome them home, from any type of trip and from battle. Raw and emotional, the sound seems to emit somewhere deep in their souls and can make you break out in goose bumps. The overall result is an amazing combination of the traditional and modern. However, even the modern element of electric guitar is played in such a manner as to accent the traditional rhythms of the music as it accents the percussion.
Some of the members of Terakaft had first-hand experience with fighting for the independence of their people before they put down their guns and picked up guitars to continue the fight in a different way. Their songs remind their own people about their culture and traditions and attempt to educate the world at large about them as well. It’s a role that has recently taken on new importance as it’s become vital to ensure Kel Tamasheq are not lumped in with those who are using their people’s name in an attempt to give credibility to the recent armed rebellion in Northern Mali. By telling the world this is what we believe in and what we have fought for in the past, Terakaft makes it very clear this was not a Kel Tamasheq rebellion. Let’s just hope the world listens.