SOMERVILLE — Many moods spill together, like shifting sands, to create the sound of Terakaft. It feels old and new, peaceful but agitated, joyous and outraged. It is revolution rock born amid violent conflict, but is rooted in tradition. And in perhaps the ultimate signifier of subversive art, it’s currently outlawed in the land where it was born.
Terakaft was born from the musical community around Tinariwen, the band whose members forged a new style in the 1980s as forced conscripts in Libyan military training camps and who later found their music embraced by their fellow Tuareg people who’ve launched a series of rebellions against the governments in Mali and Niger.
“Our songs, like those from Tinariwen, have become a real [kind of] media between our people. This happened 20 years ago. By this time, there was nothing else besides our songs that could link the Tuareg people. Everybody was listening to them. But the words are not talking about revolution. We are looking for peace for our people,” says guitarist Liya Ag Ablil (also known as Diara) by e-mail through a translator.
These bands’ style is often called desert blues, as it was born under the hot sun of the Sahara, where nomadic Tuareg communities have long made their home. (Terakaft’s musical and family roots branch from northern Mali. The band’s name means “caravan” in Tamasheq, a Tuareg language.) Its propulsive rhythms and call-and-response vocals are evocative of trance-oriented folk music from northern Africa, but the prominently featured electric guitars nod toward Western-styled rock and blues.
Justin Adams, the London-based musician who has produced albums by both Terakaft and Tinariwen, draws comparisons to John Lee Hooker and says the spirit is similar to that of “hill country blues” in America. “Straightaway you say, is the guitar there to make it palatable to Western audiences? No. It’s there because that’s what they wanted it to sound like,” Adams says. “They didn’t have an overview of the history of Western rock ’n’ roll at all, but they heard the sound of the guitar and they wanted to play it in their way.”
Pentatonic scales provide some DNA-level musical commonality, but the bluesy moves of Terakaft’s two guitarists are belied by rippling dance rhythms and group vocals. Sanou Ag Ahmed, who cofounded the group in 2001, says his first contact with Western styles came through cassette tapes of artists including Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and the vocal group Boney M. “I didn’t know who they were,” he says, “but their music was really good. The sound of this music was like a model for us sometimes.”
When Adams discovered Tuareg desert blues, Sanou’s guitar style immediately stuck out to him. “He has this fantastic way of playing rhythm guitar with the kind of lope of a camel. It’s a fantastic, unhurried groove,” Adams says.
After visiting the United States for the first time in March, Terakaft will launch its second stateside tour on Friday at Johnny D’s with its Boston-area debut. The band has played the South By Southwest festival, gotten some radio play, and garnered attention from the likes of NPR, but the transition to the Western marketplace has not always been smooth for the music or its makers. “Oh yes. It has been difficult to adjust the team,” Diara says of the challenges the band faces.
Terakaft followed its debut album in 2007 with its maiden European tour, but cofounder Kedou Ag Ossad quit the group afterward, not wanting to leave the desert for the lifestyle of a professional musician. Before Terakaft, Sanou had played with Tinariwen for 20 years but departed that forerunning band when it started to tour internationally. The drum chair in Terakaft has seen plenty of turnover.
Now this nomadic music is truly displaced; the latest round of hostilities in Mali resulted in Islamist rule that has outlawed secular music like Terakaft’s, Diara says. “You cannot have a guitar, listen to the radio, nothing. It is a big change, as everybody was playing some guitar or listening to tapes of Tuareg music,” he says. “It is forbidden and you can get punished [quickly].”
But family ties help to connect the group’s core trio with its homeland and its history: Sanou and bassist Abdallah Ag Ahmed are brothers, and Diara is their uncle. The three combine to write the band’s most recent material, which they describe as having a more contemporary feel than earlier work.
Terakaft’s American audiences may have little sense of the political history and ethnic strife that underlies its desert blues. But Sanou says the music is portable. “It seems that we can play our music everywhere. If we play a good concert, the response of the public is always warm. Even if they don't understand the words, they seem to understand our music.”
It remains to be seen if this style, forever in transit, will find a new home-away-from-home in the United States. But Terakaft is a caravan in motion.
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the time Terakraft’s concert at Johnny D’s.