There are few places in the world where Touaregs-Malian Bedouin nomads can feel at home, but the Arizona desert is one of them. "This caravan started in the desert of Mali, but we ended up in the United States," bandleader Liya Ag Ablil told the small but enthusiastic Rhythm Room crowd. "We feel like we are home in Arizona."
Dressed in traditional Bedouin robes, Terakaft -- which means "Caravan" in Tamashek -- then launched into one of the many deeply moving, driving and intense polyrhythmic numbers of the evening. The audience was up for it, filling the dance floor and moving with the hypnotic rhythms of the music.
That Arizona comfort zone was apparent during the 90-minute set, though the band looked tired and worn when they first walked into the venue. The hardships of a touring band do not compare with the difficulties faced with living in the unforgiving desert, but also living with a government that marginalizes the Touareg people.
While the music on this night -- on most nights -- was transformative and energized, the reality is less joyous. Sung in Tamashek, Terakaft's songs dealt with the realties of desert life and the struggles associated with seeking an autonomous region in Mali.
Yet, the songs are also filled with hope and optimism carried on the buoyant rhythms of the music. Even when the music demanded a slower tempo, the clearly burning intensity drove each song.
To call it desert blues would be too easy a simplification -- and somewhat ironic, given that the banjo and guitar hail from Mali and the blues existed here long before U.S. musicians adopted the form -- simply because there is so much going on in each song. The key, and highlight this evening, was the overlapping guitar melodies, already sounding slightly off-kilter for the high, almost "nasally" tones. Bluesy, yes, but certainly not downtrodden.
Terakaft has been slowly developing a name for itself since forming in 2001.The band is only a four-piece, less formidable than fellow Malian artists Tinariwen, but the music, at its core, still carries the message from the people.
Though that message remains clear, one nice thing about West African music is its ability to branch out in any direction. Such was the case on many songs this evening; like jazz artists, the explorations never detracted from the core song, nor did the musicians get lost along the way. These were great moments, but in reality, there were many as the musical pulse never wavered.
It was saddening the turnout was so low, especially considering the rare treat of having this band in town. Still, the present enthusiasm more than carried the band through a dynamic performance.
Critic's Notebook: Last Night: Malian Touareg nomads Terakaft. Personal bias: A longtime fan of West African music. The crowd: Most up for dancing no matter the age. Random notebook dump: Derek Trucks, who also plays without a pick, could also learn a few things from this bunch. Overheard: By a woman who danced almost all night: "Oo-wwwee!" This makes me wanna dance."