Interview: Terakaft

It is a big step from the Sahara desert to the urban jungle of London, but Terakaft seemed comfortably at home within the walls of Rich Mix, where they presented their new album ‘Ténéré’ (Alone). Just a couple of hours before the gig we met Liya Ag Ablil, the band’s leader, to chat about their new music and to try and understand the confused present of the Northern African region where they live.

When listening to ‘Ténéré’, (the fifth album of Terakaft’s career) it is apparent that the situation in the Azawad region is deeply changed. The idyllic panorama portrayed since the 1980s by desert blues artists has gone, leaving behind it worried and powerless words that reflect the its troubled present. Sanou ag Ahed’s lyrics in ‘Oulhin Asnin’ (My heart suffers) are an unequivocal picture of the region:

“I see my people living among their enemies.
There is no more trust: your friends become your enemies.
I look for comfort in the desert,
All I can find is birds flying from one tree to another.”

This is happening because Northern Mali and the neighbouring territories have vanished from the news and general media interest, leaving the region at the mercy of external forces. Liya Ag Ablil, also known as Diara, is a composer, singer and guitarist, the founder and spiritual guide of the band. When we spoke with him just few hours before Terakaft’s only London gig at Rich Mix the complexity of this particular historical period became apparent as the tried to explain:

“Actually we don’t know what is going on in the desert. After years and years there are many forces involved: Al Qaida, a sort of mafia, Malian and foreign Armies (like the French one), and this is all new to us. Because there are so many people we don’t know what are they doing. Our existence is still a nomadic one, and we see all these people in our home. At the moment the politicians are trying to do a deal between some so-called chiefs, but they are not dealing with the real ones: the ones of Al Qaida and the mafia. So it is really complicated because we don’t understand what is happening.”

Their inability to understand the present is explicitly mirrored in Terakaft’s new album. From the outset the musicians have tried to talk about their everyday lives in the desert, but their lyrics have never embodied such disorientation.

“When Sanou or I wrote the lyrics we didn’t care to comment on politics or political business. We didn’t know of or talk about any particular direction politicians should take. Our songs are a reflection of our life. We are living there and nowadays life is very different. When we are in town, for example in Kidal, we are even afraid to go to the restaurant, because, as I said, there are things we don’t understand. Our words are about what we see, and not stating what to do”.

When the political situation in a country is so frustrating usually the first to be affected are artists. Hence, in a country like Mali, where musicians are freedom’s loudest mouthpieces, it is inescapable that they are also risking their lives.

“In Mali and the Azawad region many artists who were playing guitar stopped because it started to be really dangerous for them to play. But at the same time there are many bands out there, more than ever. Unfortunately, since they are not based in Northern Mali, because of its dangerous situation, they are not in the limelight, but the scene is actually growing. It’s hard to know them outside the region because they actually live and play in the desert. They decided to leave the towns and move there because it’s safer and they can keep on playing their music. Hence, there are many musicians who are hardly known abroad.”

Since it is quite hard here in London to hear of those bands, we asked Diara to introduce us some of these up-and-coming acts.

“I can name a band from Tessalit called Imidiwan with a great singer called Ahmed Khalil. This band was touring in Europe some years ago, but now they have decided to stay in the desert, far from everything”.

One thing that Terakaft decided not to do was to stand aside. Their new album is proof of their recent move towards a more open and assorted sound. As Diara told us, part of the merit is due to Justin Adams’ skills as a producer. Since ‘Kel Tamasheq’ (Terakaft’s last album of three years ago) the English musician and producer has given a more precise direction to the music played by the band.

“Our music is becoming more ‘rock’, more powerful – mainly because we have been working recently with Justin Adams. It was really nice to work with him, and our aim in doing that was to open our music to the world a little more and make the people dance”.

At the same time, their music with its guitar-oriented sound is still an effective messenger, able to spread their words of freedom and fraternity. Thirty years ago when Diara debuted his music career he was, and still is, a passionate devotee of the guitar, an instrument that, in his words can deeply touch people.

“Today, as in the past, the electric guitar is a medium for the Tuareg because it is very powerful. When you play it you can be heard very far from the place you play. This is how it started to be considered some thirty years ago with Tinariwen. Today is the same, even though there are radios, telephones and so on. I remember that when we started there was nothing. So electricity and amplification really created new possibilities and we loved it!”

Finally, since the Malian musician mentioned Tinariwen, we asked him if he has overcome the definition of ‘former Tinariwen member’ that the media usually gives him, and whether Terakaft after their ten-year career and five albums have put the comparison with their more longstanding musical neighbors behind them. His answer was quite puzzling. Diara said:

“I can answer two things about this question. On one hand Terakaft and Tinariwen are really different bands with different stories and personnel behind them. And despite the fact that we play the same style our sound is unrelated. Tinariwen play more traditional music, while Terakaft are a rock band. Mind you, when we are in the desert we usually play together. We could exchange musicians and even play the same songs because we share the same medium and spread the same messages”.

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