Tartit: Songs from the desert

Born in a refugee camp, Tartit are dedicated to preserving the traditions of the Touareg, their lead singer tells Andy Morgan
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There's a Saharan wave that's about to hit the shores of Europe and North America. The semi-nomadic Touareg, or Kel Tamashek, "the Tamashek-speaking peoples", as they to refer to themselves, are gearing up to prove that they are one of the most prolific musical races in the entire African continent. In the next few months, new albums and tours from established Touareg stars Tartit and Tinariwen will be reinforced by the presence of relative newcomers like Etran Finatawa, Desert Rebelle and Toumast, to create a splash that will plant the phrase "desert blues" permanently in the western consciousness.

"It's like an epidemic," chuckles Fadimata Walet Oumar, aka "Disco", the magnetic doyenne of Tartit, who is attempting to answer my questions in her home in the Malian town of Segou while simultaneously rebuking her rambunctious brood.

"But that's only to be expected," she continues. "The Tamashek people have been hidden away for far too long and exploited by others. It's only now that we're beginning to take things in hand. I'm happy that there are several groups who are releasing their music now, because we're all ambassadors of our culture. We're all fighting to move things forward. And there are plenty of other groups that have yet to be heard. This 'epidemic' is only the beginning."

Tartit's new album Abacabok is a magnificent testament to the success of the group's decade-long struggle to wrest their own musical traditions from obscure oblivion and rejuvenate them for the world stage. On a loping foundation of booming camel-gait rhythms, the raw twang of the traditional teherdent lute, the rough rasp of the one-string imzad fiddle and the gentle surfing riffs of the electric guitar take it in turns to weave melodies that manage to sound at once both shockingly alien and strangely familiar.

Crowning it all, the call and response vocals of Tartit's majority female contingent turn the base metal of repetition into precious trance, transporting the listener into the heart of a thousand campfire weddings, baptisms and wild, whimsical celebrations under the silver light of the desert moon. The combined talents of Belgian production duo Vincent Kémis and Michel Winter, who were also responsible for bringing the Congolese sensation Konono No 1 to the attention of the world, played no small part in the success of this.

Like all modern Touareg outfits, Tartit were born in conflict. It's no exaggeration to say that Touareg society and culture has been in almost permanent crisis since the French handed over the vast territories of the southern Sahara to Mali and Niger in the early 1960s. Historical animosities between the Touareg and their southern black African neighbours were exacerbated by the new rulers' attempts to tax, educate, sedentarise and generally circumscribe the desert nomads.

A first rebellion in 1963 turned large areas of northern Mali into a no-go military zone. Then came the cataclysmic droughts of 1973 and 1985. In 1990, a new rebellion broke out. This vicious war produced its fair share of refugees, who fled to camps in Mauritania and Burkina Faso. It was there that Tartit came into being.

"Life in the camps was hard," remembers Disco. "An aid worker called Manuela Varrasso suggested that we form a women's music group. It was a great idea because we thought that with music, we could talk about our people and their suffering."

Disco and her fellow singers were invited to perform at the Festival of Women's Voices in Liège, Belgium in 1995 and it was there that she teamed up with other members of her family, including the clan griot or "hereditary bard" Amanou, who had fled to the Bassikonou refugee camp in Mauritania, and singer Mama Walet Amoumine, who was already living in Belgium. "Music isn't something you learn in Touareg society," Disco explains. "Everybody plays music."

Tartit have toured the world, and when their second CD, Ichichila, was released on the German label Network Medien in 2000 it instantly became the traditional Touareg music touchstone, thanks to its combination of raw passion and musical discipline, acoustic honesty and critical production values.

The Touareg crisis continues, deepening inexorably year on year. But if the Touareg people have any hope of winning their struggle with modernity, they need groups like Tartit, and women like Disco, with her courage, intelligence and acute awareness of the world and its ways. Get ready for that wave and enjoy a sandy soak.

'Abacabok' is released on 30 October on Crammed Disc