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Aratan N Azawad
[World Village (2011)]
The “desert blues” of Mali has been one of the great world music successes of the 2000s. Bands like Tinariwen and Etran Finatawa have toured the world over, bringing their music to new outlets that haven’t traditionally covered world music and had never heard of, much less heard, Malian desert blues before. Born of Mali’s nomadic Tuareg people, the desert blues was a result of American and Arab pop/rock refracted through nomadic traditions. For the Tuareg, their sun-bleached music, drenched in shimmery electric guitar lines and West African percussion brought a new kind of cool to the American festival scene. And when word hit the West about how cool the main Tuareg event, Festival au Désert, was, backpackers started heading out into the desert to discover this music. Heck, even Volkswagon jumped onboard, naming a line of cars “Touareg” after the Malian desert tribes, and donating some of their riches to the Tuareg festival.
There is another side to this popular explosion of Tuareg music, though: the unsettling rise of what some have called “poverty pornography” in the West. Decades of gangsta rap in the America have given rise to American audiences looking for violent street cred in artists, and especially in artists from abroad. So while Youssou N’Dour headlines European festivals and is hailed as the Golden Voice of Mali, in the U.S., Tinariwen’s story of guerrilla warfare gave them the Third World cred needed for acceptance. As mainstream Hollywood movies like The Incredible Hulk, Slumdog Millionaire, or The Constant Gardener mined Latin American, South Asian, and African slums for inspiration, artists started playing up their connections to the third world slums and impoverished communities. Musical artists soon followed suit, like M.I.A., who capitalized on her somewhat tenuous connections to the Tamil Tigers, or K’Naan, who rapped about growing up amid the violence of Somalia. Some of this music was inspired, bringing voices to people who are never heard in mainstream news (like K’Naan’s song “Somalia” or his outspoken YouTube comments that flipped the script on Somali pirates, providing historical background to help Americans understand the pirates’ origins). But the American mainstream’s demand for titillation demanded the frisson that truly “hardcore” third world artists could bring and this strange demand created new careers.
Happily, a new Malian desert blues group, Terakaft, has come on to the scene late enough in the game that most of the sensationalism about the Tuareg history of violent conflict has died down. So maybe now we can just get down to the fact that there are some amazing musicians coming out the Sahara! And the sound of Tuareg desert blues is continuing to evolve in new, exciting directions. Terakaft shows a soft side to the music on Aratan N Azawad, keeping the hard-earth-baked electric guitar lines but swapping out some of the handclaps and heavy call-and-response chanting for lyrics that are at times almost whispered. Check out the title track, “Aratan N Azawad,” for an example of this kind of softening of the music. But that great desert blues sound is still here too, as a track like “Aman Wi Kawalnen.”
Of course, sometimes it just sucks that you can’t understand the lyrics: On “Ahod,” the lead singer keeps referencing Tinariwen, the best known Tuareg band. I wish we could find out what he’s saying about them. Maybe Terakaft’s taken a cue from hip-hop and started beefing? After all, both bands have shared members, and Terakaft’s leaders got their start in Tinariwen. But this scenario is unlikely. After years spent in refugee camps outside of Mali, it’s wonderful news that so many Tuareg musicians have found success as touring cultural emissaries.
Just as the world has come to embrace the music of Mali’s Tuareg people, the Tuareg musicians have also come to discover a world of music. Terakaft has been playing now with a French trip-hop drummer and collaborating with South Asian singer Kira Alhuwalia. And Tinariwen members discovered the blues through their first travels. We used to think about music as coming full circle, but as the dry, dusty beats of West African music travel back and forth between the mother continent and North America, we’re starting to see these musical voyages as an extended spiral around a center. That mysterious center, born of West African rhythms and melodies and inspired by ancient kings of the Mandinka empire, has birthed more music in the past couple hundred years than anyone would ever have imagined.
—Devon Leger (Shoreline, WA)
[edit: Corrected the band name.]