At first, it may seem surprising that nomadic songs from the Sahara Desert region would have such an impact on the global music scene. In the past two years, however, three separate groups from the African continent have raised curious ears: the bluesy pop-inflected tracks of Amadou and Mariam, a blind couple from Mali whose latest record, Dimanche a Bamako (Nonesuch), was produced by the ever-popular Manu Chao; Konono N°1, a likembe (thumb piano) outfit from the Congo/Angola region that uses old car parts and distorted amplifiers to provoke a fuzzy and hypnotic response from their metal finger players; and the Tuareg outfit Tinariwen, among others, delivering a refreshingly muddy blues fused with regional folk songs.
Tinariwen’s success is due in large part to the Festival in the Desert, a multi-day escapade on the outskirts of Mali conceived and produced by French nomads in their own right, Lo’Jo. Comparative (in mentality though not style) to outfits like the Grateful Dead and Phish, the itinerant band led by founder Denis Péan helped launch a revival of an old Tuareg tradition: communal music sharing in the southern desert. Droughts in the ’70s and violent Tamashek wars in the ’90s ended these fests until a local association named EFES, along with Lo’Jo, revitalized efforts in 2001. By their third year the list of performers proved astounding, representing various nomads from across the globe. Homegrown heroes like Ali Farka Toure, Oumou Sangare, Afel Bocoum, and Tartit, alongside guitarist Justin Adams, Native American rockers Blackfire, and former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant all partook in this memorable concert. Released on CD and DVD on World Village, that 2003 edition brought an international consciousness to the scolding sands of Mali.
Also on Festival in the Desert was Tinariwen, a band that formed in 1982 while living in Colonel Ghadaffi’s rebel camps. Its name means “empty places”, a fitting title since it was being used not for liberation but its leader’s personal gain. From the hollowness of war emerged tishourmaren, a style using brilliant, lucid traditional chants and songs fostered by inspiration from Bob Marley and the other Bob, Dylan. They would not record anything substantial until 2000, when Adams and Lo’Jo holed up with them in a small radio station. This meeting produced The Radio Tisdas Sessions, also released by World Village. That record, alongside its 2004 follow-up Amassakoul, received a huge press push due to the success of the festival.
Like most scenes in the global music community, these bands did not emerge from nowhere. Much as the members of Buena Vista Social Club were lifelong veterans that never traveled beyond Cuba before Ry Cooder stepped inside, these artists have long histories. Amadou and Mariam began playing together in the Eclipse Orchestra in 1977, after Amadou’s stint with Salif Keita in Les Ambassadeurs. Konono N°1’s memoirs date back to the same era, using their unique amplification not out of trend but necessity: they needed to be heard above the loud din of market shoppers and could not afford cutting-edge technology. The pop-driven radio mentality is not as prominent for many of these artists, who find first a connection with the music as a sacred art form more than means for financial success. That latter concept, they recognize, emerges as their devotion to the first strengthens.
Tinariwen’s roots are nearly as deep as its southern compatriots. Because of its success, the Tuareg circuit has expanded to include outfits with more recent releases. Etran Finatawa is a group whose members include both Tuareg and Wodaabe tribes, two communities with different languages and belief systems. Their name, “stars of tradition”, is meant to invoke solidarity between the desert peoples. They formed in early 2004; while much newer, they’ve made equal impact with their excellent debut on World Music Network’s Introducing label. Their usage of guitars is not as prominent as Tinariwen’s, instead focusing on the mesmeric qualities of percussion and call-and-response chanting. Two singles especially highlight this: “Maleele”, a healing song featuring an excellent flute part, and “Heeme”, a gorgeous, melodic number praising local camel races. The production by Chris Birkett in southern France breathes life into each of the ten tracks. Much like producer Vincent Kenis has done for the Congo likembe and rumba scenes, Birkett has rendered Etran’s music palpable.
The most recent release from the Tuareg crews arrives from Tartit, a nine-piece outfit from northern Mali. Their distortion arises from the tehardent, a three- or four-string lute serving as the basis of this trance-inducing music. Produced by Kenis on his mobile studio, Abacabok was put out on Belgium’s Crammed Discs (also home to the two Congotronics releases). Tartit are veterans on this scene as well, dating back to the Tamashek camps in the early ’90s. Featuring five men and four women, their albums are the most diverse of the Tuareg bands, jumping from a bluesy guitar on “Ansari” to a very tribal, numbing number with “Tabey Tarate”. Handclaps are prominent, and the working of deep bass lines adds to the droning effect.
At their root, these examples all perpetuate trance. The songs of each of these bands are both ritual and folk. They tell stories of their regions while, often simultaneously, explain cultural theologies. Much like the Pakistani qawwali and Moroccan gnawa, the hypnotic elements are what focus the listeners, as well as players, into a communal space. While each CD is less than an hour long, these songs can last hours in performance. Cutting them down to fit popular format offers a poignant slice, but is not the cake. Like most world folk music, the experience deepens by being in a live setting where the barrier between player and audience is dissolved. Eventually the form, be it a distorted thumb piano, bass lute, percussion, or vocal melody, taps into the formless. At that point the instrument used to arrive is less important than sharing the space with the community. And as awareness of these amazing songs travels globally, that population increases and retracts. The world grows smaller in size and greater in participation. The obscure is not so mysterious anymore.