It should come as no surprise that Terakaft’s music bears numerous similartities to that of their better-known Tuareg bretheren, Tinariwen. After all, Terakaft’s founders Liya Ag Ablil and the late Inteyeden were core members of the other band as well, and the group’s basic sound, consisting of thumping percussion, jangling guitars, and hoarse vocals, owes much to the region-wide traditions of what is becoming known a “desert blues”. But Terakaft shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere Tinariwen clone, for their approach contains elements uniquely their own, subtle though they may be to the casual listener.
Terakaft specialize in a thudding, propulsive sound that, for Tinariwen, is only a once-in-a-while thing. This bass-heavy tone comes courtesy of Jean-Louis Livenais or Abdallah, depending on the track. With a fuller bottom end than many of the bands in this genre, Terakaft achieve an effortless forward momentum that is as hypnotizing as it is energizing.
This is immediately apparent from the album’s two stong opening tracks. “Alghalem” rumbles along like a desert sandstorm, with squeals of guitar and vocalist Abdallah’s urgent moan-keening creating a sense of urgency. Follow-up tune “Talikoba” introduces a chug-a-lug rhythm evocative of a herd of camels thundering across the dunes — okay, I’m reaching here, but believe me, the tune just rolls along.
This is Terakaft at their best: slipping effortlessly into propulsive rhythms and jangling — but never jarring — guitar, all of it underpinned by molasses-thick bass grooves and overlaid with those angsty vocals. Angsty they are, too, no matter the subject. A useful lyric sheet translates the vocals. Other tunes work from this same template, like the somewhat upbeat “Ahod” and the five-minute mini-epic “Ahabib”.
It isn’t all rock ‘n’ sand ‘n’ roll, however. Wistful tunes like “Aratan N Azawad” downplay the percussion and slow the pace to bring vocals to the fore that are as much wistful as angst-ridden, the guitars plucked more gently rather than thrashed. The hypnotic repetition is still there, both musically and vocally, but it’s tempered by a gentler vibe. Songs like “Aman Wi Kalalnen” and the almost-popppy “Akoz Imgaharen” are similar in execution, while “Amazzagh” splits the difference, offering a pretty melody and gentle guitar line while retaining enough thunderous bottom range to suggest portentous events just over the horizon.
Some songs might suit a listener’s mood more than others, but the record is consistently excellent; there’s not a clunker in the bunch. What a shame, then, that so many of the tunes are so relatively short. Tracks like “Alghalem” and “Talikoba” hum right along and could easily expand to fill six or eight minutes, rather than the three-minutes-plus to which they are relegated here. It’s easy to imagine these musicians getting into a groove and letting themselves go, jamming together beneath the desert stars. It’s equally tough to credit that they pull themselves up short after three minutes.
Still, if the biggest criticism one can offer about a record is that the songs are too short — hey, we should all have that problem more often. Aratan N Azawad is another strong entry into the increasingly exciting genre of Saharan guitar music, a movement as hot as the sun that breeds it.