Desert blues stalwarts holding steady--or treading water?
Like their better-known brethren in Tinariwen, Terakaft are purveyors of “desert blues”, the hyponotic, trance-inducing guitar music that has developed in the Western Sahara and southern Mali over the past 20 years. Tinariwen co-founder Liya Ag Ablil broke away to form Terakaft some years back, and while their sound closely mirrors the older band, there are considerable differences in approach as well. For starters, Terakaft has for the most part eschewed the cross-cultural guest musicians in evidence on Tinariwen’s latest offering, Tassili, which featured contributions from members of TV on the Radio and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, among others.
Terakaft’s own innovations are considerably less attention-grabbing on Kel Tamasheq, but in their subtle way can be just as effective. The standout track here is “Awa Adounia”, which features a terrific midtempo rhythm and some nifty slide guitar thrumming nicely over the polyrhythms of percussion and guitar. Also noteworthy is “Idja A Seman”, a six-minute mini-epic whose deliberate pace and unison vocals create a dreamy sonic blanket, while “Taddaza” benefits from a terrific melody and an irresistible guitar line. The album’s final cut, “Bas Tela Takaraket”, closes out the proceedings sweetly, delivering a nimbly picked guitar line overlaid with a sing-songy vocal. For an album so consistently energetic, it’s an effective way to wind things up.
And make no mistake, there is energy here in plenty. Despite adhering closely to the desert-blues template of scratchy guitars, hand percussion, and chanted vocals, Terakaft work up a kind of laid-back head of steam that rarely flags. Sure, some tunes are quicker-paced than others—“Imad Halan” practically spins off the ground entirely—but apart from “Idja A Seman”, there is nothing here that could even remotely be considered a ballad. The record chugs along from song to song on a bed of consistency and competence.
If anything, this might be the one criticism that could be leveled at this record. If consistency is the enemy of laziness, it might also be antagonistic toward inventiveness of a more radical sort. At about the midpoint of this album, the listener falls prey to a kind of sonic sameness that might translate into boredom. Consistency is also evident in the song lengths, all but one of which fall between three and five minutes. There are no short sharp bursts, and only one that stretches out for any length of time. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it does indicate certain tendencies in the songwriting.
If the band never crosses that line from consistent to tedious, it’s because their chops are good enough to keep it from happening, and the songs themselves stick in the ear.
“Allah Fal Manin” is one of those songs. Opening with a brief spoken-word intro, the tune soon shifts into that steadily loping pace so common in this type of music. (I always picture a caravan of camels shuffling across the dunes, but that’s probably just me.) “Ehad Wad as Idja”, which follows immediately after, possesses the same likable quality, but ironically is undermined by proximity to the previous song. When too many things are outstanding in the same way, they cease to be noticed.
This criticism should be understood in context: this is a very strong record in the context of popular music today; it’s just not terribly strong in the context of the desert blues movement. It does what it’s expected to do, but there are collections of songs out there that will strike the listener with more force and surprise.